A recent incident at Health Sciences North involving an employee being stabbed by a patient highlights the pervasive nature of violence in Ontario health-care institutions, say the presidents of two hospital worker unions.
According to Greater Sudbury Police, on Oct. 16, a female staff member went to check on a 62-year-old man who was a patient at the hospital's Ramsey Lake Health Centre, and when she entered the room, he was holding a wrench.
“The woman ran from the man’s room and the man ran after her,” said an email from Greater Sudbury Police spokesperson Kaitlyn Dunn. “She was able to get to safety without being injured.”
A second incident with more serious consequences involving the same man happened the next day, Oct. 17.
The patient blocked the door to his room, but staff members gained entry.
Once staff members were inside the room, the man brandished a screwdriver and stabbed one of the staff members, who received serious but non life-threatening injuries.
The suspect has been charged by Greater Sudbury Police with two counts of assault with a weapon.
Dunn said there was a different victim in each incident. While the first incident involving the wrench occurred on Oct. 16, it was not reported until Oct. 20, a couple of days after the second incident where the worker was stabbed.
The Ontario Nurses Association has confirmed with Sudbury.com that the person who was stabbed was a member of the union.
The reader who initially told Sudbury.com about the incident also said the person stabbed was a nurse. Although this information has not been confirmed, the reader also said the stabbing occurred at around 5 p.m. Oct. 17 on the sixth floor of the hospital.
Health Sciences North did provide a statement about the occurrences, although it does not include much specific information.
“HSN did have a workplace violence event yesterday (Oct. 17) where a staff member was injured,” said the emailed statement.
“HSN cannot speak to specifics regarding our patients due to patient privacy legislation. What we can say is that the safety of our staff is of the utmost importance to the organization.
“Unfortunately, workplace violence happens too often in hospitals and reducing how often this happens is a priority for us. We have a workplace violence prevention policy in place with the goal of avoiding violence from happening in the first place. We also provide training to our staff on how to prevent and manage workplace violence.
“When these incidents occur, they are investigated by our senior leaders who use this information to improve safety, reduce incidents of violence and make improvements to the workplace violence prevention processes.”
Vicki McKenna, provincial president of the Ontario Nurses Association, said violence in health-care settings is “pervasive” across the province.
She said she wants people to realize that when there's violence in a hospital or other health-care institution, it's not just workers at risk — patients and other members of the public such as family members could also be targeted.
“I feel sick about what is happening,” she said. “It keeps me up at night thinking about the thousands of people in vulnerable situations in their workplace. No other work environment would tolerate this.”
McKenna said she would like to see legislation put in place in Ontario that compels institutions to put certain violence prevention measures in place.
“In some cases it's about personal alarms,” she said. “It's about different kinds of tools. Some of it is just about having a law that says 'You must have a violence prevention program, it must meet these standards, and you must meet your obligations of protecting workers.'
“And if they fail to do that, then the Ministry of Labour is in with inspectors, and orders and charges are laid, and fines.”
In 2017, the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), which represents hospital staff who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), polled nearly 2,000 of its members about the issue of workplace violence.
Ontario-wide, 68 per cent of registered practical nurses (RPNs) and PSWs said they had experienced at least one incident of physical violence in the hospital in the previous year.
That number was slightly higher among workers polled at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, at 69 per cent.
OCHU president Michael Hurley said this is the second stabbing of an Ontario nurse that's been brought to his attention in the past two months. “So no, unfortunately I'm not surprised" by the incident at HSN, he said.
Direct health-care staff experience very high incidences of physical assault, sexual assault, sexual harassment, racially directed harassment and verbal aggression on the job, Hurley said.
Part of the problem is the underfunding, overcrowding and understaffing of Ontario's health care system, he said.
Health Sciences North is regularly operating at more than 100 per cent capacity, with patients being cared for in “unconventional spaces” such as TV lounges, linen storage areas and shower rooms, with little privacy, Hurley said.
And then added into the mix are patients with addictions and mental health concerns.
“The difficulty is that you're so stretched on the staffing side that staff are vulnerable because there's this heightened intensity around the care,” Hurley said.
He said he is concerned to hear that Health Sciences North staff didn't report the incident last week involving a wrench to police until the second incident with more serious consequences — the stabbing with the screwdriver — occurred.
“I'm glad the police intervened after the second incident, but my God, why did it get to two?” Hurley said, adding the hospital should have sought to have the patient placed in a more secure care environment after the first incident.
“I would say the police should have been called after that first incident, because this is the problem. That assault that in any other working environment would be treated as alarming, critical, demanding immediate attention, in a health care setting we simply accept them, right? — 'Oh well, he attacked the staff with a wrench.'”
According to the OCHU's polling of its members, often what happens when hospital staff report violence is that the tables are turned on them, and they're asked what they could have done differently, Hurley said.
A private member's bill by Nickel Belt MPP and NDP health-care critic France Gélinas would provide protections for health-care workers who report or speak up about the issue of violence, he said.
“A lot of people simply don't report violence,” Hurley said. “Her bill would address that.”