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Nurse unions to launch 'very serious' campaign if Ontario government, hospitals don't take rising violence against staff seriously

According to a new poll by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and SEIU Healthcare, 61 per cent of Eastern Ontario nurses have reported a surge in violence in their workplace since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, 61 per cent of nurses in Eastern Ontario have reported experiencing a surge in violence in the workplace, according to a poll conducted by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and SEIU Healthcare.

In a media briefing Saturday morning, CUPE and SEIU said violence against hospital staff is nothing new. However, the pandemic has exacerbated a surge in violent incidents toward healthcare workers — and hospitals need to step up to protect their staff and finally put an end to the ongoing issue.

If not, the two unions are prepared to launch a "very serious" campaign that includes protests across the province.

The unions, which represents nearly 70,000 hospital workers across the province, says the violence staff are experiencing is among the driving factors worsening staffing shortages in Ontario hospitals.

The call comes after the Ministry of Labour making several charges against Southlake Regional Health Centre and its CEO Arden Krystel for workplace safety violations relating to patient violence against staff, and with one northern Ontario hospital reporting a 300 per cent increase in violence toward staff over the last year.

Polling by the two unions shows that verbal, physical, sexual and racially directed violence against staff were what saw surges during the pandemic.

In the province-wide poll of hospital-based registered practical nurses (RPNs) 66 per cent of more than 2,600 respondents said violence toward them or their coworkers from patients or patient family members has increased in the last year-and-a-half.

In the same poll, 87 per cent of RPNs said they have considered leaving their jobs.

“[Workers] shouldn’t have to worry about being hurt by a patient or their family member. But thanks to the lack of action, this is their reality,” Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, said.

And the numbers reported are even higher, but because of fear of repercussion from their employer, many incidents go unreported, the union says.

As violence against women persists across the country and healthcare is a sector dominated by women, both Stewart and CUPE regional vice president Michael Hurley say it’s time for hospitals and the provincial government to respect women’s work.

And that includes addressing chronic under-staffing at hospitals, lack of full-time employment opportunities frozen wages and lack of access to important equipment, fear of contracting COVID-19 and other illnesses — all pressures nurses continue to feel in what the unions call their “toxic work environment.”

In bargaining talks, the unions say they’ve asked hospitals to post signs advising patients and families that racist and violent behaviour won’t be tolerated, improve their flagging system so potential violent patients could be identified and to increase staffing levels.

They also want hospitals to take prosecuting people who commit violence against hospital works more seriously.

So far, the unions say, no headway has been made on either issue.

The union’s goal is to achieve a new contract for its members.

While previous attempts at the table have fallen through, both unions say they are ready and willing to go back to the table with the government and hospitals.

At this point, the unions say the ball is in the government and hospital’s court as they wait to hear if either will go back to the talks.

However, if the union do not receive a response or are once again unable to come to an agreement with the government and hospitals, that's when they'll launch their campaign.

On March 30, 2020, the Ontario government announced that it was increasing health and safety measures to better protecting frontline nurses from COVID-19.

The province, in collaboration with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and in consultation with the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA), Ontario Health and the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA), issued a directive on health and safety standards for frontline nurses in hospitals in order to prevent exposure to and transmission of COVID-19.

“It is critical that we are protecting our frontline nurses who are fighting to protect us from COVID-19 every day," said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. "We are collaborating with our partners in the health system to implement this new directive to ensure that nurses have the protection they need to safely provide the best care for their patients.”

And in 2017 — before the pandemic began — the Ontario government addressed “the growing matter” of workplace violence in the healthcare sector in a message from the Ontario Minister of Labour and then Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Dr. Eric Hoskins.

“We’ve seen a concerning increase in the frequency and severity of incidents of workplace violence in our hospitals, mainly experienced by nurses,” the message said. "Nurses play an integral role in providing care to patients in our hospitals and, because of their level of interaction with patients, they are the primary victims of workplace violence. That is unacceptable. Every worker in Ontario should expect a safe and healthy workplace.”

The message goes on to say that the healthcare sector represents almost 12 per cent of the province’s labour market and is the largest sector impacted by violence in the workplace.

In fact, 56 per cent of lost-time injuries at the time were due to workplace violence in the hospital sector among registered nurses.

“Clearly, we need to take concrete steps to change attitudes, provide support for prevention, and make health care workplaces safer and more responsive to incidents of violence.”

In a report issued in 2017, 23 recommendations on a safer workplace for hospital workers were outlined, among them were:

  • Having workplace violence policies in hospital Quality Improvement Plans going forward
  • Increasing supports for patients with known aggressive or violent behaviours
  • Patient, family and staff input into triggers, behaviours and interventions
  • Creating reporting systems for workplace violence incidents

“By tackling violence in our health care sector we’ll be creating safer environments for our workers and improving patient care,” the message continued. “We look forward to implementing these initial recommendations so we can move toward safer working environments.”

And according to the Public Services Health and Safety Association, 67 per cent of the public hospitals in Ontario are using at least one of the Violence, Aggression and Responsive Behaviours (VARB) detailed in the project.

As well, 89 per cent of hospitals that used the toolkits ended up improving their processes, programs and systems to prevent and manage workplace violence.

In June 2019, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) released a statement saying it was pleased that the federal Standing Committee on Health was studying violence faced by healthcare workers, and that it hoped the committee could trigger change that will make “a substantive difference.”

“Violence in its various manifestations adversely affects the health of healthcare workers, and it in turn harms their ability to provide the best care possible for Canadians in the healthcare system,” the RNAO said.

According to the RNAO, 11 per cent of the Ontario workforce covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) are in healthcare, but they are responsible for 16 per cent of WSIB lost-time claims.

The RNAO also said that nurses in the Canadian public sector suffer a higher rate of absenteeism than that for all occupations: nine per cent vs. 5.7 per cent.

The cost of that absenteeism has been put at $989 million for 2016 alone.

The RNAO also reiterated the Ontario Medical Association’s claim that there are more reported incidents of violence against nurses in Canada than firefighters and police officers combined.

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