The union representing nurses at the LaSalle Hospital says the ongoing labour shortage means some of their members working in the intensive care unit have not been able to take breaks during their shifts.
Kristina Hoare, vice-president of the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), says the situation has been going on since May and that it is not sustainable for staff.
"It's not very good quality care being given because nurses are tired, they're burnt out," she said.
"They need to get off the unit, there are nurses that play with life and death every single day, eight hours a day, sometimes even longer. They need to get off the unit, they need to breathe fresh air."
A complaint has been filed to the Quebec Workplace Health and Safety Board regarding the lack of staff, as first reported by La Presse.
Hoare says there are often only two nurses on the floor when there should be four in the ICU. Because they are caring for five critically ill patients at all times, it's not viable to leave a nurse alone on the floor, she said.
She says operating room nurses have been pitching in but they have refused temporary transfers to the ICU because they're also burnt out.
In a statement, the regional health authority confirmed it's mostly ICU nurses working nights and weekends who can't take breaks because they don't have the staff to replace them.
But it says it's paying the nurses time and a half for overtime and has an action plan in place to ease nurses' workload. The plan includes mentorship for new nurses, calls for volunteers from other departments and sectors, bringing back nurses from retirement and new hires.
"Rest assured that this situation is taken very seriously by our establishment and that we are in action to find lasting solutions to this problem and restore the situation as quickly as possible," it said.
But for Hoare, that isn't good enough.
"It's nice that the employer is paying them overtime, but at the same time that's not a very good excuse to keep on doing this," she said.
"All our staff is asking is to give safe, proper care and to leave the unit during their breaks … They need time to breathe and decompress because it's a highly stressful environment."