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It's past time to relieve nurses

In Pa., they can be forced into extra shifts. A ban is up to senators.

KathyMagaroRead more

By Kathy Magaro

This is a true story: A licensed practical nurse and single mother worked in a nursing home. An hour before her eight-hour shift ended, her supervisor informed there was a hole in the schedule. She was being "mandated" to work a double.

It was 2 p.m. and the nurse had been up since 3 a.m. studying for her final exams in a nursing class to get her degree as a registered nurse. She was exhausted and worried about making a mistake if she had to administer medication. Her after-school babysitter wasn't available after 7 p.m. And her final exam would begin in two hours.

This nurse had a tough choice. Did she stay at work, miss her exam, patch together care for her daughter - and risk making a medication error that could harm a patient? No, she refused, and her employer suspended her for three days without pay.

Mandatory overtime forces health-care workers across Pennsylvania to make tough choices like this every day.

On Jan. 29, hundreds of nurses and other health-care workers from across Pennsylvania came together in Harrisburg to demand that the Senate pass a ban on mandatory overtime. Nurses are passionate about patient care and take a great deal of pride in their work. However, the conditions for nurses and patients have gotten much worse in recent years, causing too many errors and forcing many nurses to leave the profession.

Health-care givers here are often forced against their good judgment to work 16, 18, or 24 hours in a row. This is disrespectful to the lives of health-care workers and, more important, dangerous to their patients.

In any given year, as many as 98,000 people die from medical errors. While tired nurses are not the only cause, fixing the problem and ensuring that our nurses are fresh and at their best would help minimize error and save lives. When nurses are forced to work a dangerous amount of hours, their chances of making an error increase, putting patients at risk. It is time for this practice to end.

Critics of a ban on mandatory overtime point to a nursing shortage and say it is better to have a sick or distracted nurse than no nurse. We are losing good nurses, but forcing nurses to work extremely long hours does not solve the problem.

Study after study shows that most nurses who leave the profession do so because of the working conditions, including forced overtime. By banning mandatory overtime, Pennsylvania would be able to retain nurses and attract more who otherwise might not consider working here.

Eleven states, including New Jersey, have passed similar bans. The current market is pushing good nurses out of Pennsylvania hospitals and to states with better conditions.

The House has passed H.B. 834, Gov. Rendell has promised to sign it, and now it is up to the Senate. Please, call your state senator and tell him or her to value care, value nurses, and pass this ban now. It is one of the most important things we can do to protect the health of our children and families in Pennsylvania.