THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay’s regional hospital is launching a campaign to tackle workplace violence, pointing to a dramatic increase in incidents of verbal abuse and physical assault against health care workers.
The initiative is launching with an awareness campaign designed with input from staff and patient advisors, but will expand to include more concrete actions, pledged hospital CEO Rhonda Crocker Ellacott.
The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre has struck a working group on workplace violence that will explore other actions including increased security measures and changes to communication practices.
The campaign was prompted by a noticeable rise in violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the Emergency Department, Crocker Ellacott said.
“During the pandemic, for whatever reason, it’s become more acceptable – and it’s really not,” she said. “We’re working our very best to provide you with exceptional care. Work hand in glove with us, please.”
It’s part of a trend of escalating workplace violence faced by health care workers, with local paramedics also exploring ways to address a problem leaders said has reached a “boiling point.”
“We’ve seen violence towards our health care workers up 50 per cent between 2019 and 2021,” reported Crocker Ellacott. “In fact, 50 per cent of our nurses report experiencing some type of violence on a daily basis.”
“We need to make sure this does not continue.”
Incidents of violence in the Emergency Department have risen from 138 in 2019 to 213 in 2021, with more than half of that total involving physical violence.
In 2021, that included 65 instances of physical contact, 31 incidents of attempted physical contact, 78 incidents of verbal abuse or harassment, and 39 involving both physical contact and verbal harassment.
There has been some lost time related to violent incidents, and Crocker Ellacott said that figure has also escalated.
A 2017 report by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CNFU) found violence-related lost time claims increased by almost 66 per cent in the preceding decade – three times the rate for police and correctional service officers.
The trend has led the hospital to expand some of its safety and security practices in the Emergency Department, including introducing metal detector wands several years ago. Those are used every day, she said.
“We have already expanded some of our safety and security functions in the Emergency Department, but we continually look at what is best practice and how to do that more effectively, whether it’s security guards, police, a combination thereof, social workers – there’s various strategies that we put into effect in order to provide best care for patients and safety for staff.”
The incidents of violence involve less than one per cent of those who access the hospital, but it’s still adding up to “far too much” for health care workers, she said.
“We recognize that [when people] access the Emergency Department or any part of the health sciences centre, it can be an incredibly stressful and emotional experience. But at the same time, we really need the respectful and courteous communication and interactions from patients.”
The hospital’s awareness campaign is launching with posters in the Emergency Department, the primary location where workplace violence occurs, and is expected to expand from there.
A former nurse, Crocker Ellacott said health care workers have always faced violence, but the risks grown to an unacceptable level.
“I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced it myself, from the perspective of being a frontline nurse early in my career, but not like we see it today,” she said. “It’s escalated significantly. It’s really time to make a change and call attention to it, make it a priority, and make it stop.”