CUPE poll finds local hospital workers experiencing surge in violence

A recent study commissioned by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has revealed a recent surge in violence and hate-based offences against frontline hospital workers, including those here in Kingston.

Photo by Michael Amesse.

A new poll of nearly 550 eastern Ontario front-line hospital registered practical nurses (RPNs), personal support workers (PSWs), administrative, cleaning and other staff – including those at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) – points to an alarming increase of violence against them in their workplace.

The poll, which ran from from May 17 to 24, 2022, was conducted by Oracle Research on behalf of CUPE. A total of 2,300 front-line hospital workers were surveyed, including the 550 in eastern Ontario, and the results “showed a disturbing pandemic surge in physical and sexual violence against women and racially motivated attacks, and a large increase in the use of weapons like guns and knives against hospital staff,” according to the union.

The poll found that 71 per cent of eastern Ontario respondents experienced physical violence. According to the press release from the union, that’s about 8 per cent higher than the 63 per cent who said they experienced physical violence on CUPE’s provincial sample.

More than half of the eastern Ontario respondants (53 per cent) reported witnessing an increase in violent incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is on par with the 53 per cent on the Ontario-wide poll, the union explained.

CUPE stated that the race-based and sexual assault poll numbers are “particularly jarring,” pointing to the following findings:

  • 59 per cent of racialized eastern Ontario hospital staff polled reported they are subject to harassment or abuse because of their race or appearance.
  • 50 per cent of all categories of eastern Ontario hospital staff surveyed experienced sexual harassment, and 36 per cent experienced sexual assault.

Furthermore, incidents of gun or knife use against staff was reported by 19 per cent of eastern Ontario respondants, CUPE relayed.

According to CUPE, there are approximately 6,000 staff at KHSC. The union expressed that, if the poll findings are extrapolated to reflect that number, 4,260 local hospital staff – 89 per cent of them women – would have experienced physically assaulted at work during the pandemic. Of that number, about 1,620 of those assaults would be racially-motivated.

“The grimmest of all projections is that 2,160 hospital staff in Kingston would have been sexually assaulted in the workplace. The sobering reality is that hospitals are increasingly toxic and dangerous workplaces where women are beaten, sexually assaulted, and racially attacked by the hundreds, every single day,” said Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU-CUPE), in a statement. “There is a level of violence going on that the Premier, health minister and the hospitals can no longer ignore. They must act to stop this.”

According to CUPE, this surge in violence against women, much of it racially motivated, comes against a backdrop of severe unprecedented staff shortages and vacancies in Ontario hospitals, which have the fewest staff and beds to population of any developed economy.

“This means that the public waits for access in overcrowded hospitals, patients are sent home while still acutely ill, or turned away without care,” said Dave Verch a veteran RPN and OCHU-CUPE first vice-president. “Family members are anxious and angry about access and about the quality of care. Skeleton staffing is normal, and staff are working alone in circumstances where they are very vulnerable to assault. Under the heavy workloads, low staffing, and violence risks, many RPNs, PSWS, porters, cleaners, [and] clerical hospital staff are sadly making the choice to leave their hospital jobs.”

CUPE stated that recommendations to curb violence against hospital staff begins with zero tolerance, and must include provincial funding to boost staffing so no one works alone. The union also recommends an increase in the number of beds “to make a dent in ending hallway care.”

In Ontario, CUPE represents 50,000 hospital staff working at 120 sites of 65 hospital corporations. In Kingston, CUPE represents over 1,800 hospital staff.

For more information on the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, visit their website.

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