Exploring risk in professional nursing practice: an analysis of work refusal and professional risk


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Abstract

This article explores risk in professional nursing practice. Professional risk refers to the threat of professional discipline if it is found that a registered nurse has violated professional nursing practice standards. We argue professional risk is socially constructed and understood differently by nurse regulatory bodies, unions, professional associations and frontline nurses. Regulatory bodies emphasize professional accountability of nurses; professional associations focus on system problems in health-care; unions undertake protecting nurses' right to health and safety; and frontline nurses experience fear and uncertainty in their attempt to interpret practice standards to avoid professional discipline. Perspectives of professional risk are investigated by analyzing three professional nursing bodies' views of professional codes governing the right of nurses to refuse unsafe work assignments. The workplace dynamics surrounding work refusal experienced by frontline nurses are illustrated primarily through the lens of the 2003 SARS influenza outbreak in Ontario, Canada. We conclude that frontline nurses in Ontario are required to manage risk by following professional protocols prioritizing patient care and professional accountability which disregard the systemic, unpredictable and hazardous circumstances in their everyday practice. Moreover, we argue professional protocols cannot anticipate every eventuality in clinical practice creating the fear of professional discipline for nurses.

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