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Coronavirus: Concerns mount over violence in Ontario’s workplaces for front-line workers

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WATCH ABOVE: As more restrictions are put in place in health care settings, there are concerns violent acts could increase towards front-line workers as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Katherine Ward speaks with people connected to the industry about past incidents and how recent changes could create new problems.

New rules and regulations at hospitals and health-care facilities in Ontario are creating new challenges for front-line workers.

Many healthcare providers said they are now used to enforcing the new rules when it comes to wearing masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene. However, front-line workers said they are also dealing with growing tension and in some cases violent acts from patients and visitors.

“The biggest new flashpoint is people not being allowed access to their loved ones when they are in a healthcare institution,” Elyse Sunshine, a health and regulatory lawyer who works with nurses, doctors and other health-care workers, told Global News.

“When people are denied that, it can lead to increased levels of violence because they don’t have any other outlet for their frustration.”

Read more: Ontario mental health hospital pleads guilty to violations of Occupational Health and Safety Act

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Nurses said before the pandemic hit, they were already dealing with high levels of aggression from patients and visitors. They said things have not improved and in some cases it has become worse.

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Donna MacInnis, a registered nurse and the president of the Ontario Nurses Association Windsor Regional Hospital bargaining unit, said her members are constantly having to fight for their safety.

“They are being called names, they are being poked at, they are being yelled at constantly, family members have had to be escorted off because of that verbal abuse,” she said.

Read more: CAMH pleads guilty to workplace safety charge after beating of nurse, fined $80K

In 2019, a survey done for the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario looked at workplace violence. In a 12-month period, 68 per cent of front-line health workers reported being physically assaulted and 86 per cent said they had dealt with verbal violence.

Recently Ontario’s Ministry of Labour reported the Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket pleaded guilty to two violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The charges stemmed from an incident in January 2019, when two workers were trying to re-enter the nursing station in the facility’s emergency psychiatric assessment area after delivering food to a patient.

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The ministry said another patient, who had been admitted earlier that day, was flagged as being a “moderate” violence risk and had been exhibiting “escalating” behaviours, struck both staffers as they were trying to get back into the station, causing serious injuries.

Meanwhile, officials said if violence continues to increase, the concern is that front-line workers might not feel safe or be able to do their jobs effectively.

“Our healthcare providers are one of our most valuable resources in society and we do need to protect them,” Sunshine said.

“We don’t want people refusing to come to work because they don’t feel safe. We need them very much now more so than ever.”

— With files from The Canadian Press