Violence against health-care workers ‘out of control,’ survey finds
Some 68 per cent of nurses and PSWs report being assaulted, harassed on the job, poll conducted by Ontario Council of Hospital Unions shows.
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A hospital admissions clerk who is stabbed with a pair of scissors.
A nurse whose head and neck are punctured with a pen.
A young father who comes home day after day from his health-care job with a black eye.
According to a new survey of Ontario health-care workers, incidents like these aren’t isolated tragedies. In fact, 68 per cent of nurses and personal support workers across the province have experienced physical violence at least once on the job over the past year, a poll conducted for the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions shows.
Some 42 per cent experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment or assault.
“Violence is raging really out of control in these hospitals,” said Michael Hurley, OCHU’s president. “The level of physical violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, verbal assault, and racial name-calling is at a level which is toxic and simply shouldn’t be ignored or tolerated.”
While the vast majority of front-line workers reported experiencing physical violence at least once in the past year, a fifth of those surveyed also said they had experienced nine or more incidents in the same time frame. A quarter reported missing work at least once because of either physical or non-physical violence. Some 83 per cent of respondents said they had experienced verbal abuse on the job.
Linda Clayborne retired last year after being a psychiatric nurse for 42 years in a Hamilton hospital. She told the Star she has seen countless assaults on the job, and believes many of them could have been prevented through better staffing levels and dedicated security teams who are able to respond fully to violent incidents.
She says she remembers being punched for trying to stop a patient repeatedly kicking a co-worker, seeing a fellow nurse being thrown to the ground and beaten because she asked a patient to leave his food tray in the dining room, and seeing a corridor pooled with blood after a nurse was attacked.
“I’m 62 years old. I’ve been in fights where we’ve had to hold the patient down many, many times. It’s a daily occurrence,” she said. “It’s verbal assault, it’s physical assault, it’s sexual assault.”
But health-care providers surveyed by OCHU also expressed significant concerns around reporting such incidents, with 44 per cent saying they feared reprisal from their employer if they spoke up about violence on the job.
The study polled more than 770 front-line nurses and personal support workers in seven cities including Toronto, and an additional 1,200 workers in other health-care jobs such as admissions clerks, record keepers and cleaning staff. Of the latter group, 24 per cent reported experiencing at least one incident of violence in the past year and 58 per cent said they’d been subjected to non-physical violence.
Last year, the average lost-time injury rate in Ontario was 0.94 claims per hundred workers, while in the health-care sector that figure was 1.35, according to data from the provincial workers compensation board.
Occupational health expert Jim Brophy said those figures may not paint a full picture of workplace assaults because stigma and fear of reprisal leads to under-reporting.
“You have this pressure cooker that people are facing on a daily basis the fear of assault — but you can’t talk about it.”
In September, contract negotiations between the health-care unions broke off when hospitals “refused to agree that we share a common goal of a workplace free of violence,” Hurley said. He said hospitals also refused to write a letter to government asking for investments in workplace safety to prevent violent assaults.
“You’ve got frankly a hierarchal environment where there is a reluctance to acknowledge or address the problem,” Hurley told the Star.
In an emailed statement, the Ontario Hospital Association said it was “disappointed” negotiations broke down.
“It is important to reiterate that the health and safety of employees has been, and will continue to be a priority for both the OHA and our member hospitals,” the email said.
“While we know that the work performed by health-care providers is often challenging and demanding, acts of violence are never accepted as something that staff members should expect to face within the workplace.”
Hurley said the Ministry of Labour has increased workplace inspections of hospitals in response to concerns over violence, and said he wanted to see the Occupational Health and Safety Act amended to include explicit protections against reprisal for workers who report violence on the job. (Workers are already protected against reprisal for refusing unsafe work and exercising their rights under the act.)
Hurley also wants to see money dedicated to installing alarm systems and protective barriers in hospitals.
“They have open hearts. They’re gentle people. And out of the blue, there’s a vicious assault,” he said of health-care workers.
“There’s physical scars here. But there’s also emotional and psychological damage,” he added. “There’s a lot of anguish here.”
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