A high-profile assault of a nurse at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center on May 9 was the latest in a string of incidents that has alarmed employees about safety at the state psychiatric facility.

Workers from three unions protested outside the facility on Wednesday, seeking heightened security to protect them from unstable and sometimes dangerous patients.

“Given the patient population, they are prone to lashing out at a moment’s notice,” said Jon Tollefson, a labor relations specialist at the Minnesota Nurses Association, which participated in Wednesday’s demonstration. “It’s really about creating an environment where they don’t do that.”

Federal workplace data through April this year showed 25 aggression- or behavior-related injuries that forced victims to miss at least three days of work. That puts the Anoka center well on pace to surpass the average of 38 such injuries per calendar year between 2013 and 2018.

Anoka workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Minnesota Association of Professional Employees joined with the MNA nurses in Wednesday’s demonstration. They blamed the hazardous environment in part on recent changes to state criminal justice laws that allowed county sheriffs to send more inmates with mental illnesses to Anoka. They also criticized a decision by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Anoka Police Department to stop staffing the treatment facility with uniformed reserve police officers.

“The presence of the uniform really has a big impact,” Tollefson said. “So it’s really prevention.”

Five uniformed officers rotated through the facility every 24 hours, serving in a backup capacity to nurses or staff workers who encountered aggressive patients.

State and Anoka police leaders agreed to stop staffing officers in the treatment facility at the start of this year. The department cited liability and safety concerns for its officers, who weren’t allowed to use police tactics to subdue patients and instead had to rely on therapeutic de-escalation techniques that are required in federally regulated health care facilities.

The May 9 assault involved a male patient who punched a nurse repeatedly and knocked her unconscious after she hesitated to give him Tylenol for a headache, according to court records.

In a written statement, state Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey acknowledged the staff concerns and said he met with workers and union officials this week to discuss workplace safety.

“Nurses and other staff who care for patients in our psychiatric facilities have difficult and potentially dangerous jobs,” he said. “I recognize and respect that they face challenges every day.”