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Threats, violence and abuse: CUPE report shows unsafe conditions of Sask. library workers

CUPE released a report showing public library workers in Saskatchewan are facing abuse, harassment and violence. Getty Images

When you think of a job where a large portion of employees experience verbal abuse, violence, sexual harassment and threats, librarian might not be the one that first comes to mind.

But the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) released a report Thursday showing employees in some of Saskatchewan’s public libraries are facing unacceptable levels of workplace violence.

About 15 per cent of the library workers CUPE represents took part in the survey, which happened to be mostly Regina and Saskatoon staff members, but out of those staff members:

  • 78 per cent reported having experienced verbal abuse
  • 71 per cent reported witnessing violence
  • 50 per cent reported experiencing violence
  • 44 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment
  • 40 per cent reported being threatened with physical harm.

“This report makes it clear that public library workers across the province are facing unacceptable incidents of harassment, abuse and violence in their workplaces,” said Judy Henley, president of CUPE Saskatchewan.

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“Libraries are essential community hubs that so many rely on as places to gather and access programming in addition to borrowing books and other materials. More needs to be done to make sure our libraries are welcoming and safe places for both workers and the public.”

Click to play video: 'Union president on Millennium Library security'
Union president on Millennium Library security

The survey showed that most of the incidents in the report were due to patrons or members of the public.

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Henley said she recognizes that mental health and addictions issues are plaguing the province, adding that respondents in the survey noted an increase in these incidents over the past two years.

“Libraries are already understaffed, and library workers are simply not equipped to deal with these issues,” Henley said.

“Libraries should be accessible to all community members, but there needs to be more supports to be able to handle mental health and addictions, and preventative measures put in place to avoid incidents of workplace violence or trauma from occurring.”

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Henley said employers need to address this, reiterating that employees at public libraries are not social workers, and do not work in the health-care sector.

“Violence is not part of the work, it’s not part of your work.”

Anonymous comments from some of the survey respondents revealed some of the incidents workers have had to endure.

“I have been threatened and knocked over and been verbally abused,” read one comment.

“Sometimes just witnessing an incident can be very emotionally/mentally taxing. And even though you’re told steps are being taken it is somehow seen also as just part of the job and normalized,” read another comment.

“I have felt increasingly unsafe at work over the past couple of years. I have witnessed coworkers getting spat on, punched and verbally abused. I often feel tense when I have to deal with any sort of patron conflict at work because I am waiting for something like this to happen to me,” another comment read.

Still other comments spoke of workers getting sick due to stress, ending up with PTSD, being desensitized, or feeling like workplace violence is being normalized at libraries.

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According to the survey, only about 30 per cent of respondents say a violence prevention program is in place at their library, but about 51 per cent say they’ve received employer-sponsored training on how to deal with potentially violent situations.

CUPE noted that under the Saskatchewan Employment Act, workers have the right to refuse unsafe work, but added that 71 per cent of people who took the survey said they have not exercised that right.

A list of possible solutions was collected from the survey respondents, with some asking for better staff training, more supportive management, more and better-trained security guards, additional staff and social workers located at some of the branches.

Many of these solutions CUPE agreed with, noting that more violence prevention training was needed, union education needed to be expanded and onsite social workers and elders were needed.

In a statement to Global News, Saskatoon Public Library said:

“These issues are not unique to Saskatoon or anyone serving vulnerable populations, they are often difficult and can be distressing. In addition to the support employees receive from managers following incidents, we also offer all employee access to an Employee Family Assistance Program to help address and mitigate the effects of these issues. While the library seeks to be a welcoming refuge for people, we cannot resolve the complex and growing social, mental, and physical health issues we encounter.”

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Regina Public Library responded by saying:

“Regina Public Library takes the safety of its staff and customers very seriously. We work with staff to build a sense of community in the library to pro-actively reduce negative occurrences. We maintain a safe space through staff training, security services, community supports, and much more. The library is for everyone. It is a public place where positive interactions far outweigh negative.”

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