A woman has been charged after allegedly punching a female nurse in the face at Wollongong Hospital's emergency department on Sunday evening.
On-site security and police quickly responded to the alleged attack, which happened around 6.30pm and in front of a crowded waiting room who looked on in horror.
The 20-year-old woman became increasingly agitated and aggressive while awaiting treatment, and allegedly punched the nurse on the chin.
Police arrested and charged the woman with common assault, and she will face Wollongong Local Court on April 20.
One woman who witnessed the incident told the Mercury she had been accompanying her sick, elderly mother to the ED on Sunday.
"I'm horrified that my mother, who is 90, had to witness this incident and I'm horrified for that poor nurse," she said. "I hope she's okay."
Northern Illawarra Hospitals Group general manager Nicole Sheppard said the health district was "aware of an incident" in the hospital's ED on the weekend.
"Security staff responded to the incident immediately and police were called. As charges have now been laid, it would be inappropriate to comment further," she said.
Ms Sheppard said the health district had a "zero-tolerance approach" to violence in its facilities.
"The safety of our patients and staff is paramount," she said.
"We remain strongly committed to ensuring the safest possible environment for patients, carers and staff by having a zero-tolerance approach to physical and verbal abuse toward our staff and others.
"We acknowledge this kind of behaviour is difficult to witness and thank our community who support our frontline staff to do their job in a safe and respectful environment."
Ms Sheppard said since 2016, the NSW Government had invested $19 million to improve security in emergency departments at public hospitals.
This included upgrading CCTV systems, improving access controls between public and staff and installing remote locking to public access doors.
As part of its pandemic response, the government had also allocated $10 million in 2020-21 for an additional 316 security staff at hospitals with COVID clinics.
However Labor's health spokesman Ryan Park said more needed to be done to stop attacks on hospital staff.
"Our heroes of the frontline shouldn't have to put up with this appalling behaviour. They don't go to work to be punching bags," he said.
"We have said all along that we will support the government to increase security staff at our hospitals and where required enhance the powers they have available to deal with these types of offenders.
"They have dragged their feet when it comes to implementing adequate security measures for staff and patients and its now critical that they get on with the job of making our hospitals safe."
The NSW Nurses and Midwives Association continues to campaign for a safer workplace for its members.
Association General Secretary Brett Holmes said any act of violence or aggression towards a frontline nurse was unacceptable.
"Nurses should not be going to work expecting to be assaulted or abused while they care for patients," he said.
"Our members tell us increased wait times in the emergency department, or patients under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are contributing to these violent outbursts towards staff.
"Nurses are often subjected to family members intimidating or threatening them and this must stop. The COVID-19 pandemic has put extra pressure on nurses, but it has also created challenges for mental health clients and access to support services.
"Nurses are constantly putting their lives on the line and the government's zero tolerance approach must be strengthened to better protect frontline staff."
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