Violence against nurses on the rise in British Columbia
**WARNING: Some images may be disturbing to viewers.
When a physiotherapist asked Vancouver General Hospital nurse Virna Bation to take an elderly patient for a walk around the halls to stretch her legs and avoid bedsores, she immediately agreed, knowing it was best for the patient. In turn, Bation recruited a care aide and another nurse to help her clean up the incontinent woman before the exercise.
“When we approached her, she was very nice,” recalls Bation, who has been nursing for more than three decades. “But suddenly, she became very, very aggressive.” The patient kicked the other nurse in the stomach and bit down hard on Bation’s thumb, ripping through her skin and sending her to the emergency department. “The pain was really excruciating: throbbing, pulsating.”
After receiving several stitches, Bation went home and didn’t go back to work for more than three months. “Emotionally, physically, and socially, I was really distraught,” she says. “It impacted my whole person. When I remember what happened, I feel shaky.”
When Bation put her scrubs back on and returned to the hospital, she had trouble writing in patient charts due to the damage to her thumb. She has since modified the way she holds the pen.
Bation was attacked nearly two years ago, but still thinks about the incident daily. “It’s impacted me a lot. But as the time goes by, maybe I can recover.”
Bation’s case is not unique. Every day, nurses across British Columbia suffer violence in the workplace and the number of incidents is on the rise. According to WorkSafeBC, the overall injury rate due to workplace violence increased over 50 per cent from 2006 to 2015, and the health care and social services subsector had a significantly higher injury rate than others. Workers in this subsector accounted for a whopping 61 per cent of workplace violence claims. In the past decade, 9,231 injury claims due to violence have been accepted from health care and social services workers—that’s nearly three injuries a day.
“Violence against nurses is a significant issue in B.C. and it’s not just restricted to the emergency department,” says Gayle Duteil, president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union (BCNU). “It affects nurses every day and in every worksite. Things need to change. If nurses aren’t safe, patients aren’t safe.”
When it comes to nurses, there’s chronic underreporting of violent incidents, Duteil adds, highlighting that 85 per cent of workers injured from acts of violence are women.
“Often when it is reported, the manager comes back and says, ‘What could you have done differently?’” she says. “This is like blaming the spouse for getting beaten. We need to educate our management, our stakeholders and our nurses that violence is not part of the job and it’s not their fault.”
BCNU is calling on the government and health authorities to improve working conditions for nurses. The union would like to see trained security personnel at sites 24/7, enhanced education in workplace violence and legislated changes to the criminal code for harsher sentences for those who perpetrate violence against nurses.
BCNU would also like community nurses, who visit patients in their homes, to be equipped with personal alarms. “They’re alone and they vulnerable,” Duteil points out. “Nobody checks on their safety or their whereabouts.”
Duteil says implementing hands-off Code Whites is also a priority. Code White is an emergency code used in the hospital to notify staff of a violent patient. BCNU doesn’t want nurses to be expected to respond to dangerous situations and put themselves at risk.
“Nurses’ jobs do not include taking down patients. Full stop,” says Duteil, who faced several acts of violence herself when she was a frontline nurse, including having blood thrown at her. “We go to biology, anatomy and physiology courses—we don’t go to take-down-patient courses.”
Another major concern, Duteil says, is that after nurses experience violence on the job, many never return to work. That’s been the case for Rhonda Bennett, whose jaw was dislocated when a patient punched her from behind while she was trying to help the individual back into bed.
That was in November 2014, and today she still can’t open her mouth wide enough to eat a hamburger or chew crunchy foods such as baby carrots, one of her favourite snacks.
“I want to go to work. I want to feel safe,” says Bennett, who also had a coffee mug thrown at her and was threatened with scissors in separate incidents. “I want to be able to take care of people and not worry about getting my jaw dislocated.”
Bennett attempted a gradual return to work at Vancouver General Hospital in June 2015, but on her first day back, she experienced violence yet again. An irate patient stormed up to the nurses’ station and lunched into a tirade, swearing and threatening her.
Due to anxiety, Bennett had a hard time sleeping before shifts and knew it wouldn’t be safe for her to practice. Today, she is pursuing a master’s of science in nursing at the University of British Columbia and is on educational leave from her job.
“Becoming physically or verbally violent with your caregiver is not acceptable,” Bennett says. “If you were going to see a bank teller, it wouldn’t be acceptable to start yelling and screaming and physically lashing out. Hopefully we can get the government and other players on board to find better ways to reduce violence and support health care staff. We can’t afford to be losing nurses right now.”