Trade union representatives have highlighted the violence and aggression being experienced by nurses and midwives, with one nurse giving evidence that she had been spat at, verbally abused and threatened with stabbing.

At a hearing of the Oireachtas Committee on Health, unions also outlined the pressures being faced by health workers.

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) said that hospital overcrowding is leading to sustained and critical risks for healthcare staff and patients.

"While each winter record levels of overcrowding make headline news, our hospitals are operating beyond safe capacity limits all year round," said IMO President Dr Clive Kilgallen.

In her opening statement to the committee, Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha highlighted the violence and aggression being experienced.

"It is not acceptable that in a profession that is overwhelmingly made up of women, that at least ten assaults occur every single day," Ms Ní Sheaghdha said.

She said there were 5,593 reported assaults against nursing and midwifery staff between January 2021 and October 2022.

Ms Ní Sheaghdha said that frustration over waiting for care is a major issue.

Staff nurse Sylvia Chambers said she had been spat at, verbally abused and threatened with stabbing.

It said that it is committed to creating a safe environment within which to work or to be treated.

The HSE said it will continue to place an emphasis on the management of work related aggression and violence this year to support the HSE's strategy and policy.

Disparity in supports for health sector employees

SIPTU told the committee that there is a disparity in supports for assaulted health sector staff.

The union said that support staff, which includes healthcare assistants, porters, catering, cleaning and security staff, only receive 25% of the financial supports afforded to allied health professionals, clerical officers and nursing staff, even if they are all assaulted in the same incident.

"No worker should have to face the threat of assault in the workplace," said SIPTU Health Division Organiser Kevin Figgis.

"If an unfortunate incident does occur, it must be ensured that all policies designed to support workers should be based on equality of access and not grade," Mr Figgis said.

He told the committee that HSE data showed that support staff are the second highest category of staff that are assaulted in the workplace.

Mr Figgis added that HSE data showed that after three months 41% of support staff who have been assaulted in the workplace are still unfit to work and yet after this time period they were no longer entitled to supports.

He said that there was also a high level of direct physical assaults on paramedics.

Failures in leadership

The Fórsa trade union criticised what it describes as multiple failures of leadership by the Department of Health.

In its opening statement to the committee, the union highlighted the withdrawal of protections for staff experiencing long Covid conditions, a failure to expand the assault scheme to include all health staff, the exclusions of some health workers from the pandemic recognition payment, and the ongoing issue of pay inequality between public health service workers and those in the community and voluntary sector.

"It tells our members that they are not valued, that their work is not important, respected or recognised and that their passion to do the best for the citizens arriving in front of them is misplaced," Fórsa official Ashley Connolly told the committee.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime later the union's Secretary for Health and Social Care Professionals Linda Kelly said: "I think it's a very difficult situation for all healthcare workers, regardless of where they work.

"If you are in a hospital, a community setting, if you are in a disability or residential setting it doesn't matter, the levels of aggression are on the rise."

She said the statistics - as shocking as they are - are an underrepresentation of the true picture of what people are experiencing.

Sinn Féin's Health spokesperson David Cullinane said that issues around staff assaults have been ongoing for a considerable length of time and that a similar committee hearing was held on the issue over a year ago.

Mr Cullinane said that recommendations made by different unions were yet to be introduced.

The Waterford TD said that notwithstanding the need for improved resourcing in the health sector, there can never be an "excuse" or "justification" for abuse of staff.

Mr Cullinane said that he would like to hear from the Health and Safety Authority in relation to this issue.

Co-leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shortall said that lack of capacity in the health service and unsafe staffing levels were the key factors behind abuse of staff.

However, she added that "in practical terms there is also a responsibility on the HSE and hospital management to ensure that staff are protected".

She added that adequate security in health settings is important.

Dr Laura Finnegan, a non-consultant hospital doctor, said that in her experience she has never felt that adequate security was present in hospitals that she has worked in.

Ms Shortall was told that security staff comprised both agency and HSE staff.

Second hearing proposed

Senator Martin Conway of Fine Gael said that he believed a second committee hearing should be held, with the HSE, HSA and An Garda Síochána invited to attend.

Mr Conway said that he would have "no doubt" that the HSA is experiencing a resources issue, but he added that he would like to hear how the organisation is allocating its budget.

The Senator also wanted to hear from the gardaí why there was a low level of prosecutions in relation to assaults in hospitals.

Committee Chair Sean Crowe of Sinn Féin said that sometimes feuds in the community could result in violent scenes in health settings, which he said must be terrifying for staff.

Additional reporting Brian O'Donovan, Fergal Bowers