As front-line workers, nurses serve many roles in the health care system—they’re caretakers, educators, patient advocates and, increasingly, victims of violence.
Although violence in the workplace is widespread, it’s much more pervasive in industries like health care, and nurses working in hospitals, long-term care facilities and out in the community often face dangerous working conditions.
“Health care centres and hospitals used to be sanctuaries. They are not sanctuaries anymore,” says Gayle Duteil, president of the British Columbia Nurses’ Union (BCNU).
In the past decade, B.C. nurses experienced approximately 2862 time-loss injuries from violence, which were often the result of being kicked, hit or beaten by patients or residents of the facilities they work in. What’s perhaps more striking, though, is the fact that these nurses are at greater risk of injury from workplace violence than law enforcement and security workers.
Although violence is commonly associated with jobs in security and law enforcement, occupations in this field made up just 14 percent of all injuries that resulted from workplace violence, while nurses (including aides and health care assistants) accounted for more than 40 percent.
“A large number of people assume that these cases are isolated and occasionally spurred on by something like mental health or dementia,” says Duteil, who has more than 30 years of experience working on the front lines as an acute care nurse. “I don’t think people truly understand how widespread the problem really is.”
Last fall, three psychiatric nurses and a security guard were seriously injured by patients in the Abbotsford Regional Hospital in the span of just two months. In the first incident, which took place in September, a patient became violent when two nurses asked the patient to change into a hospital gown. In October, another nurse at Abbotsford was kicked in the head while assessing a mental health patient who was dropped off by police.
These are just two recent incidents that have made headlines, but based on the statistics, we know that there are many more nurses’ stories that don’t receive media coverage. There are also the cases that go unreported, either because nurses fear retribution or because it’s become accepted as a normal part of the job.
“You don’t know how many times we hear from the management, ‘Oh, it’s just part of the job,’” Duteil says.
Nurses are particularly vulnerable to violent assaults because they work soclosely with patients, who may act aggressively due to a medical condition or a medication they’re taking, because they have difficulty communicating their needs or because they feel frustrated by their circumstances.
Overcrowding and inadequate staffing in certain areas of the hospital, particularly psychiatric and emergency wards, can exacerbate the issue, and are often cited as contributing factors.
Unfortunately, staffing issues aren’t likely to improve if incidences of violence continue to rise, says Duteil.
“The nurses who are injured want to return to work. Often they’re not able to. That has an impact on the number of nurses that are available to provide safe patient care.”
In fact, according to WorkSafeBC, health care workers suffer a greater number of time-loss injuries due to violence than any other occupation, and when combined with workers in social services, they accounted for 63 percent of the time-loss claims made in 2015.
To address the startling number of violence claims submitted by health care professionals, WorkSafeBC plans to implement a number of prevention initiatives, while reinforcing the message that violence in the workplace is never acceptable, no matter what the job is.
It’s the same message that Duteil and the BCNU hope to get across to nurses, health care authorities and the public.
In addition to working with employers to establish violence prevention programs, advocating for more security and harsher sentences for abusers and creating a 24/7 violence support hotline, they’ve also launched a new awareness campaign, calling on nurses and their colleagues to Take Action and report acts of violence within their workplace.
“It’s about educating everybody involved. Certainly education will be a key thing that we’re asking for,” says Duteil.