News / Canada

Justice workers vulnerable to trauma from graphic reports and images, union says

OTTAWA — Public safety and justice workers exposed to graphic materials detailing horrific crimes are at risk of suffering psychological injuries and therefore need better protections, says a federal union.

A report released Tuesday by the Union of Solicitor General Employees says more than three-quarters of public safety workers surveyed had experienced effects such as nightmares, insomnia, emotional or physical difficulties and marital problems.

They included employees at prisons, RCMP detachments, courts and the Parole Board of Canada, doing jobs that routinely exposed them to violent criminal histories, victim statements and stomach-turning evidence.

"I've had some really, really horrible nightmares about some of the stuff that I've seen in pictures ... and this is a small town so these are pictures of things that have happened to people that I know," a services assistant at an RCMP detachment told the researchers.

Stan Stapleton, the national union president and a former prison guard in Edmonton, compares the exposure to repetitive strain injury from using a computer mouse.

"We all recognize and are able to deal with the physical problems, but when it becomes psychological, and mental health, we have not done so well," he said in an interview.

The toll that witnessing trauma takes on frontline workers such as police, paramedics and firefighters is widely recognized, the union says. But it adds that public safety and justice workers behind the scenes receive almost no training or preparation, few protections and little recognition for their injuries.

A parole officer told the authors: "(The) culture at work only supports taking time off work when staff are physically assaulted due to traumatic situations and (they) shame staff who become depressed/overstressed due to traumatic material/or threats to their safety."

In October, the House of Commons public safety committee called for a new research centre devoted to the mental health of first responders and other public safety officers grappling with the often disturbing toll of their jobs.

The committee's report cited estimates indicating that between 10 and 35 per cent of first responders — from paramedics to prison guards — will develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has directed Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to work with the provinces and territories and Health Minister Jane Philpott on a co-ordinated national plan on post-traumatic stress disorder among emergency personnel.

The report from the union, which has 16,000 members across 17 federal departments, calls for:

— Recognition of operational stress injury for federal public servants regularly exposed to both direct and second-hand trauma, setting a precedent for provincial Workplace Compensation Boards;

— Expansion of the federal employee assistance program to give public safety workers access to specialized trauma counsellors;

— Creation of custom-designed resiliency and emotional preparedness training for public safety officers likely to have regular exposure to traumatic material, as well as special programs for managers.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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