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Pa. nurses gain victory in long drive to ban forced O.T.

Pennsylvania nurses breathed a collective sigh of relief last week with the passage of a bill banning mandatory overtime at all health-care facilities in the state.

Pennsylvania nurses breathed a collective sigh of relief last week with the passage of a bill banning mandatory overtime at all health-care facilities in the state.

The bill, which took seven years to pass, ensures that nurses and other caregivers will not be forced to work double shifts - a common practice at hospitals and other facilities, and one that can be dangerous for nurses and patients alike.

According to a 2004 study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Ann Rogers, the risk of medical error was as much as three times higher when a nurse worked a shift of 12 1/2 hours or longer.

"Some of these nurses are working for 18, 24 hours without a break," state Sen. Christine Tartaglione said. "And, in a lot of cases, they're the last line of defense for a patient. If they're tired, if they're not on top of their games, it could be a life-or-death situation."

Tartaglione, who was paralyzed from the waist down in an Atlantic City boating accident in 2003, felt a personal connection to the bill and fought hard to get it passed.

"When I was in the hospital after my accident, I saw how much health-care workers give," Tartaglione said. "Every other industry is regulated except this one, and this is where it matters. This is where lives are at stake."

The state Senate passed the bill 49-0 on Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved it 189-11 on Wednesday, and Gov. Rendell has said he will sign it.

In 2005, a report published by the Pennsylvania Department of Health showed that 13.6 percent of the state's registered nurses had experienced mandatory overtime in the two weeks prior to taking the department's survey.

"It doesn't just happen once a month, it happens every week," said Sue Dougherty, a nurse who works in the geriatric ward at Norristown State Hospital.

Dougherty has experienced firsthand the negative effects of working overtime.

"I've found myself falling asleep on the highway during my drive home," she said.

Dougherty is a member of Pennsylvania's SEIU Healthcare union, which represents more than 9,000 nurses in the state. The union, along with the Nurse Alliance of Pennsylvania, spent much of the last seven years writing letters to politicians, organizing rallies and trying to gain support for their cause.

Finally having the bill passed feels great, said nursing assistant Michelle Sisco.

Sisco, who now works at the Brighten at Ambler Nursing Home in Ambler, previously worked in facilities that mandated overtime.

"They don't care if you have to go pick up your children or take care of someone who's sick," she said. "They don't care if you have somewhere else you need to be. If you're mandated to work, you have to work."

Gov. Rendell has pledged to sign the mandatory-overtime ban into law this week. After that, health-care facilities will be given time to hire more nurses - because understaffing is one of the main reasons that mandatory overtime became a problem in the first place.

The ban will go into effect July 1, 2009.

"This will change things greatly," Sisco said. "I just pray that

we'll find a way to solve some of the other problems in the health industry, too."