Hospitals have become increasingly dangerous places to work for nurses, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Unifor, which jointly represent thousands of front-line staff working in hospitals across northern Ontario.
Sault Area Hospital says efforts are being made to address workplace violence.
“Based on the environmental risk assessment findings, an action plan consisting of several safety measures has been developed to improve safety in the Emergency Department,” wrote Brandy Sharp Young, SAH spokesperson in an email to SooToday on Wednesday.
Union officials discussed patient violence against nurses in a virtual presentation on Tuesday.
“I think the hospitals have to do a better job at creating an environment where people who are there to receive health care know that if they are violent in any way that there’s going to be some serious consequences and they might put themselves in a situation where they’re refused care until the violence isn’t part of the equation,” said Andy Savela, Unifor health care director speaking to SooToday from Thunder Bay on Wednesday.
“I don’t think anything should be off the table, including enhanced screening of patients,” Savela said in referring to making hospitals safer places to work for nurses, doctors and staff.
“We’re not able to go into people’s bags. That’s their private stuff so you become very vulnerable if the patient is agitated and has brought in a stick or dirty syringe needle or a knife, especially if you have your back turned to the patient. It could lead to severe consequences,” said Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, speaking from Toronto.
Unifor says violence from some patients - already weary with COVID, mental health and addiction issues or other forms of stress - can arise due to frustration with long wait times for care, which Unifor blames on a shortage of nurses.
That shortage, Unifor says, can be blamed on the provincial government.
“A lot of the responsibility goes to the provincial government’s underfunding of the hospital sector. That’s who has to step up and provide some funding and engage in the conversation about what can be done. We just can’t have hospitals as places where there's violence,” Savela said.
“It’s definitely a staffing issue. The wage restraint legislation - Bill 124 - definitely isn’t helping,” Richer said.
Bill 124, brought in by the provincial government in 2019, caps wage increases of nurses at one per cent per year.
Nursing officials have said that has led some overworked nurses - also scared of workplace violence - to leave the profession and has also discouraged younger college and university-aged people from considering a career in nursing.
Bill 124 needs to be revisited as inflation soars, Richer said.
“What we know is that hospitals…are increasingly toxic and dangerous workplaces, where violence and vitriol against a workforce who are more than 90 per cent female in the case of hospitals in northern Ontario, is not only tolerated, but sadly, largely ignored,” the unions wrote in an earlier release.
“This spike in physical and sexual violence against women and racially motivated attacks comes against a backdrop of severe unprecedented staffing shortages and vacancies in our hospitals.”
“Staffing is a problem. We’re seeing an all time high in skeleton departments where there are several vacancies on every floor during a shift and patients are waiting longer. People are having less patience about that. If we know that a patient may act aggressively we would like to go in with two nurses but there’s just not enough staff. The government needs to pour in more money into staffing these units,” Richer said.
"In July staff at the Sault Area Hospital were assaulted by a patient who hurled an oxygen tank and uttered threats. In the fall of 2021, several staff at Lake of the Woods in Kenora quit the hospital over what that administration said was a 300 per cent rise in harassment of staff," the unions say.
Richer said reports of workplace violence don’t always find a sympathetic ear from hospital administrators.
“Hospital administrators have policies but we’ve found that these policies have no teeth. Often health care workers who have been the victims of violence have been brought in and questioned and they feel like they’re the ones to blame for the violence. What comes from their manager or their supervisor is ‘what did you do to provoke this act?’”
“The general public, in speaking with them, are really surprised this is going on, and if we don’t talk about it, it’ll never get fixed.”
Richer said an email sent by her union to Premier Doug Ford and the new Minister of Health - Sylvia Jones - asking for a meeting to discuss the workplace violence problem has yet to be acknowledged.
“Our members are feeling demoralized.”
Apart from better pay and adequate staffing, Richer said nurses need whistleblower protection.
“We have many members who have been injured at work and are afraid to speak out because they’re afraid of being terminated because of hospital media policies.”
SooToday has reported violent incidents at Sault Area Hospital in the recent past.
“The action plan is currently at various stages of implementation within our hospital," said Sharp Young
"These measures include reconfiguration of access to the core ED, line of sight improvements, additional CCTV cameras, policy and procedure enhancements (violence flagging, development of safety plans, safety drills and mock exercises), personal panic buttons for health care workers, and safety education and training for staff and physicians. This work is being done with the ED staff and physicians, the hospital Security Team, and other key stakeholders such as SSM Police Services and SSM Paramedic Services.”
“At Sault Area Hospital, we take all incidents of violence seriously and work to reduce violence incidents from occurring at our facilities. Instances of violence can still occur regardless of our efforts. Violence of any kind is not tolerated in our facility, and incidents of such behaviour will result in SAH taking appropriate action, which may include removal from our facility and/or prosecution,” Sharp Young wrote.