Ontario’s nurses and personal support workers are facing an “epidemic of violence” caused by government and hospitals’ failure to safeguard them from abuse, assault and sexual harassment, according to the body representing health-care providers.
In a letter sent Monday to Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn, Ontario Council of Hospital Unions president Michael Hurley expressed dismay at the “daily” threats health-care workers confront on the job, which he calls “unacknowledged, dismissed, or tolerated by administrators and regulators.”
“In no other occupation or walk of life would such abuse be tolerated,” Hurley said.
Health-care workers have the second highest number of reported injuries in the province — behind the service sector, but ahead of such industries as construction, mining and manufacturing, according to the latest available statistics from the workers’ compensation board. In 2014, a study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found at least half of all registered practical nurses were assaulted by patients, the letter obtained by the Star says.
New research commissioned by OCHU, which will be published this year, also has documented “widespread and systemically accepted violence” among health-care staff in seven Ontario communities, according to the letter.
All but one of the 54 workers interviewed in that study said they directly experienced violence at work, according to Jim Brophy, who conducted the research with fellow occupational health expert Margaret Keith.
“It’s become so normalized, so accepted, that now it’s really viewed as part of the job. You might as well put it in as part of the job description,” Brophy told the Star.
“I was scandalized by how much it was replicating all the features of domestic violence. Blaming the victims, keeping the dirty little secret quiet, really internalizing all of this.”
Dianne Paulin, a registered practical nurse from North Bay with 25 years of job experience, says she would have been spared her life-changing injures if the psychiatric ward she worked on had implemented common sense policies like bolting down furniture.
Instead, she was assaulted by a patient who pinned her against his room door with a chair and repeatedly punched her, leaving her with a bulging neck disc, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.
“You don’t go to work and think you’re going to die. I went to work because I loved my job and the clients liked me,” she said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I was doing. It was the environment.”
Workers identified underfunding and understaffing as “significant contributors” to workplace violence, often perpetrated by patients or their family members against employees who are sometimes forced to work alone because of shortages. Brophy said the abuse often took on a sexual and racial hue because many health-care workers are women of colour. But fear of reprisal from hospital managers discouraged nurses and other staff from raising the issue, he said.
“Nobody is allowed to talk about it. Health-care workers are frightened. We had to conduct these interviews pretty close to secretly.”
In 2010, the Ontario government introduced legislation requiring employers to have programs in place to deal with workplace violence and harassment. Those reforms were prompted by the 2005 slaying of Windsor nurse Lori Dupont, who was stabbed multiple times in the chest at work by a physician she had ended a relationship with.
In a statement to the Star, the minister of labour’s spokesperson, Michael Speers, said the government is “committed to addressing workplace violence in the health-care sector and is developing a plan to make hospitals safer. A progress report on that initiative is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
“No one should feel unsafe at work, and concrete steps are needed to ensure the safety of our health-sector workers,” Speers said.
Last year, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was slapped with an $80,000 fine under workplace safety laws in relation to a 2014 beating of a nurse by a patient who reportedly left the victim “beyond recognition.”
Brophy said his research found workers often had little awareness about what policies were in place to protect them at their hospitals.
“The problem is widespread, it’s pervasive, it’s unreported. But when you go to the workplace, you find it’s not being taken seriously by the employers.”
The letter makes several recommendations to government, including that the ministry of labour launches a program of “comprehensive inspections and audits of all of Ontario’s health-care facilities” to ensure effective protections are in place, and that every workplace has safeguards like personal monitors, alarms, and identification of violent patients. It also calls for co-operation with the ministry of health to ensure adequate staffing levels, and the presence of trained security personnel where needed.
Government should “immediately enact” whistleblower protection for workers who speak out about workplace violence, the letter adds.
Paulin, 60, has been unable to work since she was attacked in 2011. Although she received workers’ compensation for her injuries, she says her benefits were cut in half in 2015 after the board told her — against the advice of her psychiatrist, she says — that she was able to return to work. She is now appealing the decision.
The WSIB cannot comment on individual cases, but a board spokesperson, Christine Arnott, said the board’s aim is to “help injured workers recover safely and return to work and their lives.”
“Ultimately, we want people to recover successfully and receive the assistance they need from the WSIB. If someone is concerned about a decision or other aspects of their claim, we encourage them to speak with us. We are here to help,” she said.
“Right now I’m going to the banks because I owe too much money, because I’ve been struggling and struggling since they knocked me in half,” said Paulin. “I’m at the point where I have to sell the house.”
She says she has already lost something even more valuable.
“I’m not me.” she said. “I’ve never been me since this happened.”
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