AIM: This paper reports a study of workplace aggression among nurses in Tasmania, Australia. There is international concern about a perceived rise in occupational violence as a major worldwide public health problem, with associated financial costs. BACKGROUND: There is reason to suspect that aggression towards nurses is increasing. For example, increased illicit drug use puts nurses at the sharp end in managing patients admitted with drug-related problems. Such people are often resistant to healthcare intervention, and often have associated disorders, including mental illness. Despite this increased awareness, comprehensive data on occupational violence in nursing are not available. METHOD: A specially designed questionnaire was sent to all nurses registered with the Nursing Board of Tasmania (n = 6326) in November/December 2002, with 2407 usable questionnaires returned. The response rate was 38%. FINDINGS: A majority of respondents (63.5%) had experienced some form of aggression (verbal or physical abuse) in the four working weeks immediately prior to the survey. Patients/clients or their visitors were identified as the main perpetrators, followed by medical and nursing colleagues. Abuse influenced nurses' distress, their desire to stay in nursing, their productivity and the potential to make errors, yet they were reluctant to make their complaints 'official'. As well as reporting high levels of verbal and physical abuse, nurses were distressed because they could not provide the appropriate care to meet patients' needs. Few working environments were free of aggression. CONCLUSION: Future research should try to determine the specific factors, including staff characteristics and environment, associated with the high levels of aggression reported in 'hot spots' where, on the basis of the present results, many staff experience high levels of verbal and physical abuse. Unless managers take steps to improve the situation, attrition from the profession for this reason will continue.