Nurse wearing plastic face shield leaning their head ahainst their hand Lakeridge Health Centre registered practical nurses, personal support workers, cleaners, porters and clerical staff polled recently report that pandemic tensions are subjecting them to increasing violence at work. 55% of them report that they have experienced physical violence and 52% have witnessed an increase in violent incidences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Front-line staff at Lakeridge Health were included in a province-wide sample of 2300 surveyed by Oracle Research on behalf of CUPE May 17-24.

Regardless of the geographic region respondents are polled from, the disturbing levels of physical & sexual violence against the hospital workforce, who are predominantly female is a province-wide problem, that must be taken much more seriously by the Ontario government and hospitals, says Sharon Richer secretary-treasurer of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

Because of the conditions at work over the last two and half years, 53% report feeling depressed and emotionally exhausted.

  • 41% of all categories of Lakeridge Health hospital workers polled experience sexual harassment and 33% experience sexual assault.
  • 16% report an increase in the use of guns or knives against staff.
  • 49% of the respondents identify poll as racialized. 72% of them report they are subject to harassment or abuse because of their race or appearance. That’s slightly higher than the 71% average on CUPE’s provincial poll.

There are about 5400 staff working at Lakeridge Health Centre different hospital sites combined. If the poll findings are extrapolated to reflect that total, about 2,970 Lakeridge staff would be physically assaulted at work during the pandemic. Of that number over 1,900 of these assaults would be racially-motivated.

“The grimmest of all projections is that more than 1780 Lakeridge hospital staff would be 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. 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,” Richer says.

This surge in violence against women, comes against a backdrop of severe unprecedented staff shortages and vacancies in Ontario hospitals which have among 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. 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, clerical hospital staff are sadly making the choice to leave their hospital jobs,” says Dave Verch a veteran registered practical nurse and OCHU-CUPE first vice-president. 

Recommendations to curb violence against hospital staff begins with zero tolerance and must include provincial funding at least inflation costs to boost staffing so no one works alone and to increase beds to make a dent in ending hallway care.