Physical assaults on nurses and other NHS staff in England have risen by almost 9%, according to latest figures, which unions warned could represent the “tip of an iceberg”.
The number of reported assaults increased by more than 5,000 between 2012-13 and 2013-14 – up from 63,199 to 68,683, according to data collected by NHS Protect, the body responsible for tackling crime in the health service.
“The fact this figure is rising year on year should ring alarm bells”
Of the 266 organisations that contributed data – trusts and social enterprise schemes – those providing mental health services reported the largest number of assaults, compared to any other setting.
Almost 70% of assaults on staff – around 47,000 – in 2013-14 took place in mental health settings. Mental health organisations accounted for 22% of the 266 organisations that offered data.
In 2012-13, when the same number of mental health organisations provided data, 43,699 physical assaults were reported in this sector, meaning there has been a 7% increase.
The acute sector accounted for the second largest proportion – around a quarter – of assaults in 2013-14, with 17,900 reported. Hospital trusts accounted for more than half of the organisations that contributed to the report.
“The NHS seems to be more committed to pursuing financial objectives than it is to providing a safe environment”
Meanwhile, as in 2012-13, the vast majority – more than three-quarters – of all assaults on staff were related to the medical condition of patients involved in the incidents.
Richard Hampton, head of external engagement and services at NHS Protect, said the almost 9% increase in assaults this year was most likely caused by a combination of many working environments continuing to leave staff vulnerable and greater awareness among employees about reporting incidents.
“It is our opinion, anecdotally, that more people are reporting assaults compared to a historic under reporting,” he said. “However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that staff are in vulnerable positions.”
He added: “Each individual health body faces its own issues. The responsibility for looking into what staff are facing is down to those individual trusts. That’s one reason why we have local security management specialists in place to raise awareness of incidents and address the individual needs of each trust.”
Mr Hampton highlighted the link between patients’ medical conditions and the majority of assaults. “That in itself is not a barrier to taking an action,” he said. “Every incident of assault should be learnt from. Staff shouldn’t accept assault as being part of the job.”
However, unions drew a connection between the hike in reported assaults and the increasing pressures staff were under from workforce shortages. They also called on employers to provide safer working environments for staff, warning that the statistics may not be a true reflection of the real number of NHS workers being assaulted.
Janet Davies, executive director of nursing and service delivery at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “68,000 is a huge number of physical assaults against NHS staff, even before you consider the rise of 5,000 in the past year.
“Sadly, our experience suggests that the assaults that have been reported may be the tip of an even larger iceberg,” she said.
Ms Davies pointed out that the figures did show there had been a 13% increase in the number of criminal sanctions following reported assaults – up from 1,458 in 2012-13 to 1,649 in 2013-14 – but this was still a tiny proportion of the overall number.
She added that there was still much more that employers could do to prevent incidents and reduce harm to staff, including ensuring safe staffing levels and a well-designed environment for care – which would reduce patient frustration.
“The number of assaults keeps rising year on year, but the efforts made to tackle them seem to diminish. Unfortunately, the NHS seems to be more committed to pursuing financial objectives than it is to providing a safe environment for patient care,” she said.
Unison head of health Christina McAnea added: “It is absolutely shocking that every day more than 188 NHS workers are physically attacked. The fact this figure is rising year on year should ring alarm bells.
“The cuts and pressure on the service have caused growing patient frustration, but no staff should be assaulted or feel unsafe at work. Both employers and the police need to take these incidents seriously, particularly in mental health premises,” she said.
Sue Covill, director of employment services at NHS Employers, said: “Assaults on staff are unacceptable and even one is too many.
“Having the right supervision and support in place in crucial. We would also encourage good planning and, where useful, technological solutions such as personal alarms, so that staff in the field are able to avoid difficulty or summon assistance quickly.”
She added that wellbeing plans were being expanded within health services and NHS Employers “strongly encourages” staff to report assaults and for managers and HR departments to support this through methods such as putting us posters in the workplace.
Meanwhile, last week the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence announced a consultation on new draft guidance on the management of violent and aggressive behaviour by people with mental health problems.
NICE said the updated guidelines included more information on anticipating and reducing risk, and clear recommendations on when and how to use physical restraint. The final guideline is expected to be published in April.