Many of the nurses who came out to the sidewalk in front of Southlake Regional Health Centre to protest workplace violence this afternoon will tell you about being choked, kicked, punched, slapped, bitten and verbally abused by patients.
The incidents occur daily, as often as three to five times a day, many said, and a recent statement made by the Newmarket hospital’s president and CEO, Arden Krystal, that violent incidents "are incredibly rare" caused them to feel “very angry” and “infuriated.”
“Enough is enough,” was chanted repeatedly by the more than 100 frontline health-care workers who attended the Oct. 26 rally organized by their union, SEIU Healthcare, after a registered practical nurse was attacked last Thursday by a patient, just six days after another nurse suffered severe workplace injuries.
Those violent incidents occurred after Southlake pleaded guilty and was fined $80,000 on Oct. 16 in connection with a January 2019 incident when a patient in the emergency department violently assaulted a registered nurse — who has yet to return to full-time work — and a security guard.
While most of the nurses did not want to speak on the record for fear of their jobs, Southlake registered practical nurse Lystra Moore had no qualms about doing so.
Violent incidents are “very very common”, she said, while wearing an ‘Enough is Enough” placard around her neck.
“If you have staff, you have to protect them,” she asserted. “There’s no excuse, even for crowded, busy hospitals.”
“We’ve got to stop this, and what we’re asking them is to work together with us as a coalition, as concerned citizens. This is a problem that affects everyone — no one should leave for work in the morning and be afraid they won’t come home safe,” said SEIU Healthcare president Sharleen Stewart through a megaphone as passing vehicles on Davis Drive honked their horns in support.
“If this was a construction site, it would have shut down and the Ministry of Labour would be investigating it now. Because we’re health-care workers doesn’t mean that being threatened or being bullied and hit and possibly having your life threatened comes with the job — it does not and we’re here to say enough is enough,” said Stewart.
The union is demanding a meeting with Southlake president and CEO Krystal, frontline staff members, Ontario Minister of Health and Newmarket-Aurora MPP Christine Elliott, Associate Minister of Mental Health and Additions Michael Tibollo, and representatives from the mental health and addictions sector to create an action plan that will ensure safety for everyone at the hospital.
As well, Stewart called on the Ford government to reinstate a committee on workplace violence in health care that has been dissolved.
Vicki McKenna, who as president of the Ontario Nurses Association has been outspoken in her condemnation of the lack of action by Southlake’s leadership to prevent further violence, told the rally, “The last few weeks have been particularly difficult. When there are nurses and health-care workers on the street, there is something wrong inside.”
“Every employer right across this province has an obligation to keep workplaces safe. (Violence) is not part of your job, it has never been part of your job, and we do not accept that this is just the way it is. That is not OK,” McKenna said. “If we don’t stand together .. and work together nothing will change. You have to speak up when there are violent situations.”
She told NewmarketToday that 63 incidents of violence occurred at Southlake from last July to September.
“The situation is not better and with capacity growing, it’s only going to get worse,” she said, urging Southlake to commit to timelines for the actions outlined in the workplace violence prevention plan created after the January 2019 attack.
According to SEIU Healthcare nursing division president Jackie Walker, Southlake nurses have told their union about “the concerted efforts of management to oppress and suppress RPNs from reporting workplace violence.”
She said nurses have been told not to indicate there is risk associated with the behaviour of patients because it would slow transfer to a long-term facility.
Southlake did not respond to a request to comment on that statement.
“What really bothers me is that these leaders (at Southlake) are nurses. They have experience of nursing, they’ve been on the frontline, but maybe it’s been too long, maybe they forget what it feels like to be afraid to come to work,” Walker told the crowd.
Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates, who had called for York Regional Police to conduct an investigation of Southlake’s board, CEO, and managers under Section 217.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada prior to the rally, told the protesters that reporting is crucial to accurately track violence in their workplace.
“What you need to do as frontline workers is file those incident reports, to report when your patients have adverse behaviour so they can be held accountable.”
Coates also called on the Ford government to increase funding and support for mental health.
“This Ford government has cut and slashed the very services that workers need, that our community needs. And those that have mental health issues should not have as their first resource coming to the hospital, they need to have the proper support in the community and the proper resources,” Coates said.
While acknowledging that violence incidents occur at hospitals across the province, Coates told NewmarketToday, “One year later, we’re at this again, at the same hospital … they haven’t learned and to me a fine of $80,000 is a slap on the wrist. This employer keeps failing in its responsibility under the law to make the workplace safe. There is no justification for this.”
“At Southlake the safety of staff, physicians and patients is a top priority. We continue to work closely with our union partners to implement a comprehensive violence prevention strategy, as we have over the last 18 months. We work together every single day and we regularly seek out feedback from the union,” said Kathryn Perrier, Southlake manager of corporate communications, in an email statement.
When an incident occurs, a detailed review takes place to determine the root causes and to develop recommendations for improvement, she added.
“These are complicated issues with many contributing factors, including a lack of access to appropriate long-term care facilities in our area. Southlake’s physical infrastructure challenges and the fact that our hospital is so overcrowded also plays a significant role,” Perrier said.
One nurse who waved a placard on the sidewalk said she was disappointed that no one from hospital management appeared to show support.
“I work in emerg, and it’s every day,” she said of violent incidents, recounting that a co-worker was strangled by a patient recently, and another was hit with a cane.
“We need the public to know what’s going on,” she added. “I’d appreciate it if you could write that we’re not allowed to talk.”