Months after one patient stabbed another, Tewksbury Hospital nurses and health professionals picketed outside of the Tewksbury Public Library Monday to draw attention to an increasing number of violent incidents in the workplace and nurse retention issues at the state-owned and operated medical facility.

Hospital workers say they’re experiencing an increase in the state’s admission of forensic patients, or those that are court-involved or recently out of incarceration, to the hospital. But the issue, according to staff, is that staffing levels, training and security protocols don't match the number of patients with complex criminal backgrounds.

“People are really afraid to go to work, and that’s been escalating in our behavioral health facilities,” said Katie Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents many employees at the facility. “We’re really asking for any and all hospitals to take a serious look and to put in real safeguards, because that also is driving these talented and experienced professionals from the bedside.”

The union said this influences staff’s ability to provide safe patient care, and is calling for patients with greater needs or a history of violence to be treated in a separate unit.

A spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health said that the department looks into all allegations to address them individually.

“As the number and complexity of all types of admissions rises, the DMH Office of Inpatient Management (OIM) has also created several training programs intended to give direct care staff skills to engage more effectively with challenging patients,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to GBH News. “DMH has also conducted listening sessions at all inpatient facilities and regularly continues to seek ways to respond to safety issues.”

A recent letter from the union’s facility co-chairs sent to the state Department of Mental Health Commissioner Brooke Doyle called on her to immediately address the “longstanding and escalating issues related to dramatic increases in staff and patient assaults, lax security protocols, and the lack of an appropriate response from the administration.”

Union members say they’ve asked hospital management to address a lack of safety on the campus but have seen little response. They said there was no lockdown in February after one patient stabbed another on the Tewksbury Hospital Campus, leaving staff fearing for their safety.

“The incident, and management’s lackluster response to it,” the letter reads, “shook our staff as it is just one of several such events over the last few years.”

More than 3,000 911 calls were placed to the hospital in a recent three-year period, per a WBZ investigation cited in the letter.

Dave Guiney, a registered nurse at the hospital and co-chair of his bargaining unit with MNA, He said the problem has been increasing over the past six months with more court-involved patients.

“Right now, the main problem that we're seeing is just the changing of the patient population to a more acute and a more aggressive violent patient type,” he said. “And we feel underprepared to care for that patient population.”

Guiney said many fellow medical staff came to him crying and upset when the facility wasn’t put on lockdown after the stabbing. That’s only the beginning of their concerns, though. Some say they’ve been yelled at or intimated by patients, and others have been told by patients that they will find out where they live, according to Guiney.

“I’ve had so many staff — they’ve talked about being groped by patients, which, you know, is concerning,” he said.

The union also said that it’s hard to retain and recruit staff because the wage scale is not market competitive, and this issue intersections with concerns over workplace safety. Union officials didn’t have wage figures immediately available.

Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the union, said that new nurses being hired full time are paid rates higher than those who have worked at the hospita; for 30 years.

“It’s very demoralizing. That does nothing to contribute to enticing nurses to keep on working where they are,” she said.

The union said the issues at Tewksbury’s facility aren’t isolated, but also exist at Worcester Recovery Center Hospital and Taunton State Hospital.

The union recently released a survey finding 68% of the state’s nurses reported experiencing at least one incident of violence in the past two years, while 58% said they received no additional support from their employer when they encountered violence.

Similarly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that health care workers experience the most nonfatal workplace violence as compared to other professions, accounting for nearly 70% of all non-fatal workplace assaults.

Updated: May 13, 2024
This story was updated with a statement from the Department of Mental Health.