Surge in violence against staff, “creates toxic work environment” deepening Ontario’s hospital staffing crisis

TORONTO, ON – Increasing violence directed at hospital staff is a major factor driving the worsening staffing shortage in Ontario’s health sector, say two unions representing nearly 70,000 hospital workers province-wide.

According to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and SEIU Healthcare, the gravity of the situation was underscored this week with the Ministry of Labour making several charges against Southlake Regional Health Centre and its CEO Arden Krystal for workplace safety violations relating to patient violence against staff, and with one northern Ontario hospital reporting a 300% increase in violence toward staff over the last year. Polling done by the unions shows verbal, physical, sexual, and racially directed violence against staff surging during the pandemic.

At a media conference tomorrow, Saturday October 23, 2021, at 11 a.m., the two unions will outline the devastating impacts of rising violence on pandemic-weary hospital staff. They will also call on Premier Doug Ford to act now to increase staffing levels and pressure the hospitals to introduce protections for the predominantly female workforce, who will continue to leave in droves unless action is taken now.

In a large provincial survey of hospital-based registered practical nurses (RPNs), 66% of more than 2600 respondents said violence toward them or their coworkers from patients or a patient’s family member has increased in the last year and half. In the same poll, 87% of RPNs said they have considered leaving their jobs.

“The chronic understaffing of our hospitals and the tensions this creates for patients during a pandemic, is taken out on RPNs, personal support workers, cleaners, clerical and other staff. They face a torrent of verbal, physical and sexual violence and racially directed abuse every single day. This creates a toxic climate in which staff are vulnerable and unprotected. The hospitals refuse to address this problem in a systematic way. If the Premier is worried about a potential mass exodus of hospital care staff, he needs to pressure the hospitals to act on the problem of workplace violence,” says Michael Hurley president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

A lack of full-time employment, and over 10 years of hospital staff wages falling behind inflation, along with unsafe working conditions that include high levels of violence and difficulty accessing protective equipment during the pandemic, are making it increasingly harder for Ontario hospitals to recruit and retain employees.

“Often times construction sites have signage that indicate the number of days since a workplace related injury. If that approach was taken in Ontario’s hospitals, the number would be reset every single day. It’s sexist and dangerous what hospital executives permit to continue day after day for these female-dominated healthcare workers. RPNs and other healthcare workers are understandably quitting at a time patients need them the most, so we’re calling on the Ford government at Queen’s Park to address the health human resource crisis in our hospitals by taking swift action today. Enough is enough,” said Sharleen Stewart, President of SEIU Healthcare.

Among the measures that OCHU-CUPE and SEIU are asking for:

  • Increased staffing levels
  • Protections 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
  • Amending the Canadian Criminal Code to make assaulting a health care worker a more serious offence for sentencing