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Calgary care worker speaks out following colleague’s death: ‘Injury is a constant reality’

WATCH: Troubling revelations are surfacing about the on-the-job reality for care workers across Alberta. Many are coming forward following the tragic death of a youth case worker in Calgary. As Jill Croteau reports, those in the industry say they're in high-risk situations daily.

There are calls for change to protect Alberta youth care professionals on the job.

Deborah Onwu was stabbed to death in the early morning hours of Oct. 25. She was working her shift at an assisted living facility for Wood’s Homes in south Calgary.

An 18-year-old man living there is now charged with her murder.

READ MORE: Calgary man charged in stabbing death of case worker

Many care workers who say they’ve been in similar situations feel there is a daily risk on the job.

Ryley Estereicher is currently on stress leave following an attack by a client.

“There have been situations where I was sent to work with people — regardless of my education, training, experience, qualifications — that I am not physically capable of supporting or defending myself against.

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“But that is again and again an expectation — to ignore our own safety,” Estereicher said.

Ryley Estereicher, care worker, on leave.
Ryley Estereicher, care worker, on leave. Jill Croteau/Global News

She’s advocating for better standards to protect herself and her colleagues across the industry.

“Injury is a constant reality. Workers have had chunks of drywall thrown at them. I’ve had co-workers stabbed with utensils,” Estereicher said.

“I’ve been punched, I’ve had my hair pulled, I’ve been tripped and kicked.”

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A petition has been circulating, calling for better protections. There is also a call to the province to develop better policies.

READ MORE: 47-year-old case worker stabbed to death in South Calgary on Friday: police

Rajan Sawhney, minister of Community and Social Services, issued this statement to Global News:

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“I was heartbroken to hear of this tragedy at Wood’s Homes. Our condolences go out to Ms. Onwu’s family and friends. I greatly value the contributions of Alberta’s caseworkers and the important work that they do. While these workers are not government employees, organizations are required to have appropriate security protocols in place.

“Harassment and violence have no place in our workplaces and are not ‘just part of the job,’ which is why it’s addressed in our occupational health and safety laws.

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“I have also asked my officials about appropriate protocols and procedures. I will not comment further given ongoing criminal and OH&S investigations,” Sawhney said.

READ MORE: More security needed at Alberta youth ranch where woman was assaulted: former employee

CUPE, the union representing Onwu, said care workers are exposed to dangerous, high-risk situations. Spokesperson Lou Arab said they deserve change.

“We have been raising concerns with Wood’s Homes about low staffing levels for some time to try to better protect employees from being victims of violence,” Arab said.

According to Alberta Labour and Immigration’s own records, work sites operated by Wood’s Homes have been inspected. One facility, though not the one where the fatal stabbing took place, was ordered to develop a plan to prevent violence at the work site.  Wood’s Homes has complied with the order.

But many insist this isn’t an isolated problem, but a reflection of the entire industry.

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“Corners are being cut and exceptions need to stop being made,” Estereicher said.

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Sylvia MacIver, spokesperson for Wood’s Homes, said the organization takes its responsibility in promoting a safe workplace very seriously.

“We are fully co-operating with investigations underway by both Occupational Health and Safety and Calgary Police Services, and are conducting our own investigation into the incident,” MacIver said.