Two unions say the Ontario government and its hospitals need to do a better job of protecting workers from workplace violence.
According to SEIU Healthcare and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the number of violent incidents against hospital workers is on the rise. The two unions represent 70,000 front-line hospital workers.
Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, said hospital workers are predominantly women, the violence is preventable and the increase in attacks is contributing to staffing shortages.
"As these workers remain on the front-lines of COVID-19, caring for and saving lives, they shouldn't also have to worry about being physically harmed by a patient or the patient's family member," Stewart told reporters at a virtual news conference on Saturday.
"But shamefully, because of the lack of protections and support from our hospitals and the Ontario government, this is their reality. And it is more common than the hospitals want you to know."
Since June, the two unions have been bargaining with Ontario Hospital Association, the bargaining agent for the hospitals, with the aim of negotiating a new contract for hospital workers. Improved health and safety measures for hospital workers is the unions' number one priority, Stewart said.
Talks broke off in September after mediation, but workplace violence remains an issue, she said. "Protecting front-line workers is not a priority for hospital CEOs or the Ford government," she said.
"Increased workplace violence, staffing shortages, worker burnout — they are all connected and we urgently need solutions because things are getting worse every day. Ontario hospitals are broken."
Violence demoralizes workers, union leader says
Michael Hurley, president of CUPE's Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, said the violence has taken the form of racially directed abuse, sexual assault and harassment, verbal abuse and physical assault. He said the frequency of incidents is creating a toxic work environment.
"Violence shows up often as a key issue demoralizing the workforce," he said.
The comments come after Ontario's Ministry of Labour laid five charges against Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont., north of Toronto, and one charge against its CEO Arden Krystal under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act this month, according to Stewart. The ministry has confirmed that charges have been laid but not the number.
'What happened was not okay,' hospital admits
On Saturday, Kathyrn Perrier, spokesperson for Southlake, confirmed that charges under the act have been laid but declined to say how many. She said the charges stem from three incidents in 2020 and the ministry notified the hospital of the charges on Oct. 12.
"We are disappointed with this development, given our clear commitment and actions taken to improve the safety and security of all our staff. Our frontline staff are the heart of our hospital, and what happened was not okay," she said in the email.
Perrier said staff in all three incidents were caring for patients with "responsive" behaviours, which the Alzheimer Society of Canada says refers to "actions, words or gestures presented by a person living with dementia as a way of responding to something negative, frustrating or confusing" in their environments.
Perrier said the hospital serves some of the fastest growing and aging communities in Ontario, and consequently, the hospital has become among the most overcrowded in Ontario.
"This significantly increases the risk of confrontations with patients in crisis, which was the case in these incidents," she said.
"Despite this, our dedicated team of nurses, physicians and staff continue to provide unparalleled care to our community. We recognize the challenges they face every day, and we will continue to advocate on their behalf for additional funding and resources from the Province to support our staff as they provide critically important care to the communities we serve."
Perrier declined to provide more details of the incidents but said the hospital has developed a violence prevention strategy that include funds for more security, a new "emergent mental health assessment unit" that has private rooms a distance away from its emergency department, violence prevention training for all staff and managers, and a workplace violence prevention officer.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour said in an email on Saturday that preventing workplace violence is a priority.
"The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development is focused on keeping every worker safe and this includes addressing the violence in the workplace that health workers may face. The Ministry inspects hospitals, long-term care homes, retirement homes and community care workplaces to ensure prevention measures are in place to prevent workplace violence," the ministry said.
The ministry said it has developed a guide for hospitals, along with long-term care homes and home care workplaces, to help to prevent workplace violence. It declined to comment on the Southlake case.
The Ontario health ministry has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Unions ask for number of actions to stem violence
CUPE and SEIU said in a news release that they are asking for the following:
Increased staffing levels.
Protection against staff working alone.
Hospitals to post signs indicating violence and aggression will not be tolerated.
Flagging systems to alert staff to potentially violent patients.
Amendments to Canada's Criminal Code to make assault against a health care worker a more serious offence when it comes to sentencing.