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Hospital unions call for action against a 'pandemic surge' in violence

CUPE and Unifor say frontline workers in Northern Ontario need more support.

THUNDER BAY — Two hospital unions representing frontline staff in Northern Ontario hospitals are demanding that hospital administrators and the Ontario government do more to combat violence against workers.

The Canadian Union of Public employees and Unifor say hospitals across the province are becoming "increasingly toxic and dangerous" workplaces, especially for women.

They allege that violence and vitriol against a 90 per cent female workforce is not only tolerated, but largely ignored.

During a joint virtual news conference Tuesday, CUPE and Unifor outlined the results of an Oracle Research poll of 2,300 frontline hospital staff, including workers in Northern Ontario.

They said it showed a disturbing "pandemic surge" in physical and sexual violence against workers.

In selected hospitals in cities such as Thunder Bay, Kenora and Sault Ste. Marie, 91 per cent of staff are female.

According to the unions, more than half of 239 Registered Practical Nurses, cleaners, clerical and other staff who were polled at St. Joseph's Care Group, Lake of the Woods Hospital, Sault Area Hospital, and hospitals in Sudbury and North Bay reported being sexually harassed, while 38 per cent have experienced sexual assault.

The poll also found that 60 per cent of respondents in Northern Ontario experienced physical violence, and that nearly two thirds have witnessed an increase in violence since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

More than half also reported feeling depressed and emotionally exhausted.

"Women are beaten, sexually assaulted and racially attacked by the hundreds" in Ontario hospitals every day, said Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of CUPE's Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. "There is a level of violence that the Premier, health minister and the hospitals can no longer ignore."

Nearly four out of five racialized staff polled in the five Northern Ontario hospitals reported being harassed or abused because of their race or appearance.

Andy Savela, health care director for Unifor, said the increase in violence during the pandemic continues to contribute to a staffing crisis in the hospital sector.

Savela cited cases in which weapons such as knives have been used against workers.

About 28 per cent of poll respondents reported an increase in the use of guns or knives in Northern Ontario hospitals.

Asked by a reporter if hospitals might need to do security checks similar to what's done in airports before passengers are allowed to board, Savela said everything should be on the table.

Calling the incidence of violence unacceptable, he maintained that "hospitals and hospital staff are not getting the support and resources that they need from our current provincial government."

Savela said hospitals need resources not only to provide needed services but also to protect their employees.

He said Unifor is currently negotiating with some Northern Ontario hospitals, and has tabled language that commits the parties to have a thorough discussion on violence and to work jointly to address it.

Richer added that workers need whistleblower protection so they feel free to publicly raise the issue about workplace violence.

She said violence and abuse has got to the point where it is a significant contributor to what she called an exodus of workers from health care, and to the current large vacancy rate.

In Thunder Bay, administration at the Regional Health Sciences Centre launched a workplace violence campaign last month.

Just two days later, two hospital staff were assaulted in separate incidents.

Police laid charges in one case, but the nurse attacked in the other incident preferred not to pursue charges.

NOTE: A previous version of this story has been updated to clarify that the Northern Ontario hospital workers who participated in the survey were employed in five different cities.

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