Over the past two years, we’ve seen a slew of worrying headlines on how the COVID-19 pandemic has ‘exposed gaping problems with…’, ‘highlighted longstanding issues in…’ or ‘brought to light the longstanding problem of…’. One headline that particularly struck me is how Canadian health-care workers are facing increasing harassment and violence on the job, especially related to COVID-19.
Its hard to fathom that in addition to bearing the brunt of the pandemic, health-care workers have also had to contend with increased threats and acts of harassment and violence, both inside and outside of their physical workplace. And its not just the rate of threats and acts that has increased - Its also the severity. One health-care worker reported receiving a suspicious package at their place of work that led to an evacuation. Another was attacked by a patient, who released bear spray from a concealed can. Some health-care workers even had bounties placed on them.
Unfortunately, we know that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg as many acts or threats of violence are not reported.
Although the rise of violence against health-care workers is worthy of immense concern, lest it overshadow the fact that health-care workers have been victims of workplace violence long before the current pandemic. In fact, prior research has found that nurses are subjected to more acts of violence than police officers or prison guards. The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board reported that in 2014, the number of workplace injuries that required time off work from the healthcare sector greatly outnumbered those in other sectors surveyed.
After many years of advocacy from a variety of civil society organizations, the federal government recently announced new legislation aimed to protect health-care workers from violence at work. While this is an important step in recognizing the serious risks of assault and injury that health-care workers face on the job, a multi-faceted approach – from sensitising Canadians to addressing staffing shortages – will be needed. Organizations, like the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, for example, are urging that key recommendations outlined in the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health’s study Violence Facing Health Care Workers in Canada, be implemented as well.
WISE has always underscored the notion that the effects and consequences of workplace violence and harassment extend well beyond the physical parameters of workplaces: Ensuring the safety and well-being of health-care workers (women making up the majority of paid care workers in Canada) is consequently intrinsic to the safety and well-being of our communities.