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'Scandalously unsafe environment': Nursing home workers say they regularly experience violence

And it's worse in Northern Ontario than it is in southern part of province
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Two new reports are being released concurrently that expose the high level of violence, abuse and harassment against staff employed in Ontario’s long-term care homes, including those in Sudbury and northern Ontario.

An in-depth, peer-reviewed investigative study on violence against staff in Ontario long-term care homes has just been published, said a press release from the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

The study, titled “Breaking Point: Violence Against Long-term Care Staff,” was conducted by Canadian researchers Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith, who are associated with the University of Windsor and the University of Stirling in the UK. They held group interviews with long-term care staff in seven Ontario communities.  

What the researchers heard is that long-term care staff are bloodied and broken, both physically and psychologically. 

“Long-term care homes in Ontario are largely staffed by women. Their work is based on compassion and care,” said Keith. 

“And yet, they themselves are expected to tolerate an environment in which physical, verbal, racial and sexual aggression are rampant. Adding to their burden is the implicit threat that they will be disciplined or fired if they speak publicly about these abuses.” 

Many of the study subjects, including several from Sudbury and North Bay, agreed with one participant who summarized her experiences with workplace violence as follows:

“I’ve been kicked. I’ve been scratched. Last night I got punched in the back. I’ve had shoes, hats, everything thrown at me. There’s not a day that I haven’t been abused whether it’s verbal or physical. Ever.” 

The study revealed a largely overlooked culture of abuse, a lack of uniform protections and regulations, understaffing and underfunding, as well as resulting high levels of stress and burnout among the front-line care givers.

“We found that physical, sexual and verbal abuse have been allowed to become normalized within the long-term care work environment,” Brophy said. “We believe the health and well-being of health care staff reflect the health of the health care system itself and, therefore, these findings should precipitate a critical examination of the institutional factors that allow for such high levels of violence.”

In a second, related investigation, more than 1,000 front-line, long-term care staff, including in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and North Bay were polled on their experiences with workplace violence based on job roles and gender within long-term care facilities in Ontario. Public Polling conducted the telephone poll commissioned by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) and the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE Ontario).

The poll found that in northern Ontario:

  • Ninety-six per cent of personal support workers (PSWs) and Registered Practical Nurses (RPNs) experience physical violence at least occasionally – that’s eight per cent higher than the provincial average of 88 per cent for PSW and RPN violence.  
  • Seventy-four per cent of the PSWs and 66 per cent of the RPNs experience at least one incident of physical violence each week. The provincial figures show lower rates of weekly violence at 62 per cent for PSWs and 51 per cent for RPNs.
  • Sixty-two per cent of PSWs and 60 per cent of RPNs experience sexual assault.
  • Ninety per cent of PSWs, 89 per cent of RPNs and 80 per cent of other support staff respondents believe that they are not able to provide adequate care due to workload and low staffing.  
  • Eight-six per cent of nurses and 80 per cent of personal support workers acknowledge wanting to leave their jobs.

This study and the polling results reflect the anguish and emotional and psychological pain of the long-term care workforce in the face of an unrelenting wave of verbal, racial, sexual and physical violence,” said Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) and a former Health Sciences North hospital worker.

“That the polling shows much higher rates of violence in northern Ontario long-term care homes than the provincial average should be a wake-up for all our MPPs to support minimum staffing levels in long-term care and statutory protection for staff who report or speak up about the problem of violence. 

“We call on the federal government to treat sexual and physical assaults against health care staff by mentally competent persons as a serious criminal offence.”

Candace Rennick, CUPE Ontario secretary-treasurer and former PSW, stressed that the extremely high level of verbal, sexual and physical violence against long-term care staff described by our polling should concern everyone who works in, or is resident in, or who has a family member in long-term care in northern Ontario. 

“An environment this violent and degrading for long-term care workers must surely also be unsafe for residents,” she said.

“These results paint a grim picture of a scandalously unsafe environment – we should not believe that this culture cannot be changed. Violence should never be seen as part of the job.”