As COVID-19 exacerbates violence in the workplace, one health system is using discreet wearables to protect staff

Workplace violence has long been a concern among provider organizations. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that healthcare workers were five times as likely to experience a workplace violence injury as of 2018.

And, healthcare professionals have warned that the stressors COVID-19 placed on patients and workers alike have increased the number of incidents occurring among nurses and clinicians.

“More than three-quarters of incidents involve patients, family members and other customers, and sadly there’s even some workplace violence among healthcare colleagues and others that contribute,” Tommy Ibrahim, M.D., president and CEO of New York’s Bassett Healthcare Network, told Fierce Healthcare. “The pandemic has only really added to that, and it’s continued to accelerate.” 

These trends have led Bassett Healthcare Network to begin deployment of a wearable emergency alert system across its five hospitals, offices and other settings, Ibrahim said. Developed by workplace safety technology company Strongline, the Bluetooth technology will allow Bassett’s caregivers and supporting staff to discreetly call for assistance from co-workers, security teams and, potentially, law enforcement.

“We have been evaluating options and opportunities across multiple platforms. We saw that this was the single most effective solution,” Ibrahim said. “We’re actually the first organization in the country to be able to deploy this for all our caregivers and to do so in a high-tech, innovative way [and] a cost-effective way. [We’re] able to make this available not only to clinical staff who are interacting with patients, but also all 5,200 caregivers across the organization who may not be directly involved in patient care but nevertheless are at risk of workplace violence.”

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The Strongline Staff Safety System takes the form of a wearable badge with a small button that, once pressed, transmits the user’s real-time location and identifying information to a centralized platform. Where exactly these alerts are sent can be configured by the organization—Bassett, for instance, will have alerts sent to nearby co-workers as well as to its central security team, Ibrahim said.

This tech-supported approach can more quickly deliver assistance than a wall-mounted or computer-based system, Ibrahim and Strongline said, and avoids the potential risk of escalating a confrontation when the aggressor notices a call for help.

Of note, the devices do not track wearers’ locations until an alert is triggered to preserve employees’ privacy, Strongline told Fierce Healthcare in an email statement.

This type of concern “is a common first question from staff when they are offered the Strongline badge,” the company said. “We make it very clear to all users that the system does not provide access to location information outside of a duress incident.”

RELATED: Co-worker, institutional support helped nurses maintain mental well-being during COVID-19 pandemic: survey

Strongline said it developed its system in collaboration with Philadelphia-based academic health system Jefferson Health. The technology has previously been deployed among front-line employees at “several leading health systems around the country,” the company said, but Bassett will be a major step forward for its business as the first system to simultaneously deploy across its entire staff.

Bassett leadership across departments such as IT, security and nursing who had been informed of the upcoming rollout have been through a due diligence process and so far are “delighted” with the system’s decision to adopt the technology, Ibrahim said. That rollout is anticipated to take the system only three or four weeks from the time it informs its broader workforce of the deployment, Ibrahim said—a “relatively fast” process that he noted was another key factor in Bassett’s decision to adopt the technology.

Industry, legislators support new healthcare worker safety measures

Speaking from the perspective of a clinician, Ibrahim said that having safety resources such as Strongline’s on hand stands to not only reduce physical violence, but also to ease the mental burden front-line staff experience day to day.

“I was a clinician for 15 years as a practicing hospitalist—I can tell you my peers, nurses and other clinical and other non-clinical staff are always on alert to ensure that the safety of their personal well-being as well as their surrounding colleagues,” he said. “I think with the rise of mental health issues across the industry, substance abuse issues and in light of other trends propagated by the pandemic, that’s always a concern—one that we train for and educate our staff on constantly to ensure they’re maintaining a level of alertness and awareness to protect themselves and others.”

In much the same way that providers are committed to patient safety, organizations have a similar obligation to put the protection of their employees on an equal playing field and must invest resources into programs that support a physically and psychologically safe work environment, he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by a recently formed collective of large health system CEOs advocating for and committing to various workforce safety efforts.

RELATED: Health systems must tackle workplace, patient safety in tandem, IHI says

Dubbed the CEO Coalition, it’s headlined by executive leaders from Cleveland Clinic, Intermountain Healthcare, Mass General Brigham, Providence and other organizations that are calling for a renewed focus on protecting employees’ psychological, emotional and physical safety. This could include increased access to support resources, explicit policies condemning racism, adequately supplying personal protective equipment and adopting new safety-focused technologies, they wrote.

“Our ability to build trust and provide the care patients require and deserve is dependent on the physical and emotional safety and the just treatment of all those who provide or support patient care,” the executive group wrote on its website. “We commit ourselves to this new definition of safety to ensure that no healthcare team member will have to sacrifice their personal safety, health, identity or well-being to do their jobs and care for patients.”

Congress has also showed a recent interest in protecting healthcare workers from on-the-job violence. In February, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, introduced a bill to the House of Representatives that instructs the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create a federal standard requiring healthcare and social service employers to implement workplace violence prevention plans.

The bill was applauded by industry groups like National Nurses United, and, in April, it passed through the House in a bipartisan vote. It is currently referred to the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

“Nurses need to be protected when they’re on the job; their safety is important in its own right and it helps ensure optimal patient care,” Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, president of National Nurses United, said in a statement. “We appreciate the House members who voted in favor of this very important legislation and urge them to encourage their colleagues in the Senate to do the same.”