Violence against health-care workers disturbs researchers
Abuse of staffers widespread, serious and under-reported, report finds
Two researchers say they were shaken by what they heard when they talked to health-care workers across Ontario about violence on the job.
“We had no idea of the magnitude of the problem or how serious it was. We actually ended up being quite disturbed,” said Margaret Keith, a University of Windsor researcher and co-author of the just-released report on violence against health workers called Assaulted and Unheard.
Keith and her co-authors James Brophy, also a University of Windsor researcher, and Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, found violence against health staff in Ontario is ubiquitous and vastly under-reported, in part because workers fear reprisal. Because of that culture of silence, they said, the issue is effectively concealed from public scrutiny.
They spoke with 54 health-care workers. All of them witnessed violence against a health worker and all but one personally experienced it. In a related survey, 68 per cent of Ontario health workers said they experienced violence in the past year, many of them several times.
Keith said they interviewed people who had teeth knocked out, their faces smashed, and suffered concussions and other serious injuries that left them debilitated in some cases and traumatized in all cases. They also spoke to many people who had been sexually assaulted, many of whom said their experience was brushed off by superiors as just part of the job.
“It is very hard to ignore the parallels of gender and violence against women in our society with what we were hearing. It mimicked in so many ways the way domestic violence has been treated.”
Keith said the stories of sexual assaults and harassment were the most disturbing to her.
The researchers say the fact health workers are terrified to talk about the issue, or even report it in many cases, means the problem flies under the radar. A North Bay nurse was fired recently after speaking out about violence against nurses at a conference.
The researchers said more resources would help reduce violence against health workers. Staffing cuts are contributing to a dangerous and toxic environment for workers, they said.
The researchers also say a bigger investment in prevention is needed. In Smiths Falls, Ont., earlier this year, a hospital clerk was stabbed by a patient with scissors he grabbed off a desk. A Plexiglas barrier, which most hospitals have, could have prevented that incident, the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions says.
Keith said she believes one reason the issue has not been made a legislative priority is because the majority of health workers are women.
“We do not believe in workplaces that employ mostly women that health and safety is being given the same priority that it is in industrial facilities that employ mostly men.”
The Ontario NDP is sponsoring a whistleblowers law that would guarantee workers the right to report violence against them without reprisal and speak about it.
We had no idea of the magnitude of the problem or how serious it was. We actually ended up being quite disturbed.