Alcohol and violence against public sector workers

drunk07:41 Friday 20th November 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: New figures from the East of England Ambulance service show a small rise in the number of staff at the NHS Trust being attacked. There were 195 physical assaults reported in 2014/15, compared to 188 in the year beforehand. 36 of these assaults last year were reported in Cambridgeshire. This included a Cambridgeshire paramedic who was bitten on the arm by a drunk patient. 90 people were found guilty of attacks. Joining me now is Tim Roberts, who is the regional organiser for the public service union Unison. Tim this must be a horrible thing really, if you’re out and about trying to help ill people and you get bitten on the arm by someone who has had too much to drink.
TIM ROBERTS: Yes. This is the problem which many of our members face working in the public services, particularly those in the emergency services such as the ambulance service. They face a range of problems, and it’s invariably down to people’s over-consumption of alcohol.

DOTTY MCLEOD: There has been a rise this year compared to last year, but a very small rise, so that must be seen as a reasonably positive thing.
TIM ROBERTS: Yes, and we also know from the surveys done by NHS staff last year, a survey from across England, that a third of NHS staff do not even report the violence which they experience. And that for me is the most shocking statistic. There is an under-reporting here.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So this is the thin end of the wedge really potentially.
TIM ROBERTS: Sadly many paramedics and nurses working in A&E will see this is part of the job, being spat at, being slapped. We know that a third of ambulance staff working on the front line will be sexually harassed at some point during their career. The level of abuse which our members experience while they’re going about their daily work is shocking sometimes.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Do you think the employers, the NHS Trusts, give their staff enough protection from this kind of attack?
TIM ROBERTS: For us, certainly in the East of England Ambulance Service, we don ‘t think that’s the issue. There are issues around the reduction in the number of police on our streets. So when an incident occurs, often the ambulance staff are left there dealing with it. There might be some violence happening around them as they attend situations, and they would like to call the police for back up, but with the reduction in police numbers over the last five years that has become more of an acute problem. And certainly we want to work with NHS employers to ensure that they do more conflict and resolution training with staff, so the staff can deal with whatever they can to try and reduce the tension in the situation. But ultimately we’re talking about a small number of individuals who are consuming a very large amount of alcohol. Alcohol is the biggest source of violence and tension facing public sector workers.
DOTTY MCLEOD: It’s interesting isn’t it, because we often talk about shortages of staff in the health service, or the amount of pressure that hospitals and ambulance trusts are on, and if as you’re saying booze if really the problem, or one of the big problems, than you start to think well, should we start to do something to tackle that at source.
TIM ROBERTS: Indeed. Indeed. And ultimately there is no amount of training which an ambulance service can do for its staff which will prevent situations where you have an individual or a group of individuals fuelled by cheap alcohol, consuming a lot, and then acting in a way which the vast majority of us would deem as deeply inappropriate. 50% of ambulance staff at some point in their career will be injured as a direct result of drunken violence.
TIM ROBERTS: That’s a survey done by the Institute of Alcohol Studies earlier this year. So of course the figures being released will be a range of violence. A small number of them will be patients who are medically incapable I suppose, and are acting out in that way. But the vast majority of the violence is directly linked to alcohol.
DOTTY MCLEOD: 50% of staff. That’s extraordinary. Tim, thank you very much for your time. Tim Roberts there, who is the Regional Organiser for the public service union Union, which represents of course a good many ambulance staff here in Cambridgeshire.