HARRISBURG - After years of lobbying, nurses and other medical professionals in Pennsylvania will no longer be forced to routinely work overtime.

Under a new law, which goes into effect in July, health care facilities will be prohibited, with few exceptions, from forcing nurses and certain other health care staffers to work beyond their scheduled shifts.

Supporters of the bill say it is aimed at improving patient safety by cutting down on the possibility of nurses and other health care workers becoming overtired and more prone to making mistakes.

"There was a problem with nurses being overworked and overtired and potentially error-prone in their jobs," said Gov. Rendell during a ceremonial signing of the bill yesterday.

Deborah Bonn, director of the Nurse Alliance of Pennsylvania of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), put it this way: "A tired nurse isn't a safe nurse. We know that. It's a matter of making the decision to stop putting patients at risk."

The law seeks to prevent health care institutions - including hospitals and nursing homes - from disciplining or discriminating against caregivers who refuse to work beyond a scheduled shift.

It does provide for some exceptions, such as a natural disaster. But in that and other emergency situations, the mandatory overtime can only be used as a last resort. And health care institutions must give an employee an hour to arrange for family care.

The law also prohibits employers from using on-call time as a substitute for mandatory overtime.

"This day has been a long time coming," said Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D., Philadelphia), who pushed for the bill. "Enactment of this law is recognition that the skill and judgment of nurses and other health-care workers are critical to patients and their families."

The law applies to caregivers who deal directly with patients, including nurses, technicians, technologists, certified nursing assistants and phlebotomists. It covers medical facilities including hospitals, nursing homes, surgical and rehabilitation facilities and state health facilities.

The law will be enforced by the state Department of Labor & Industry. Violators can be fined from $100 to $1,000 per violation