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TORONTO — Ontario health care workers — as vulnerable today as they were during the SARS outbreak — must have the right to refuse unsafe work, says the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

During SARS, 45 per cent of cases in Ontario were hospital staff and paramedics.

If health care employees had the same right to refuse unsafe work as other Ontario workers, we could have forced the issue on the use of proper protective equipment during SARS,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE). “In China, hospital staff took full precautions. In Ontario staff were told that much more modest precautions were adequate, even though the unions continually raised concerns that the disease was far more insidious than authorities were telling us and that the precautions were ineffective.”

The Ontario government must amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act to allow health care workers the right to refuse, he said, noting that such a measure would let workers exercise the precautionary, “better safe than sorry” principle advocated by Justice Archie Campbell in his report.

Hurley also called for a profound reform of the joint occupational health and safety committee system and of Ministry of Labour enforcement powers, all of which failed miserably during the outbreak.

The Ministry of Health must accept the lessons from SARS,” he said. “That means requiring health care institutions to report on outbreaks of superbugs, which are killing hundreds of Ontarians every year. Right now they go unreported.”

The ministry has not increased resources for hospital cleaning or even accepted that cleaning is an integral part of clinical care, he said.

Health care workers were hailed as heroes during the SARS outbreak, but there has been no dialogue with the leadership of health care unions about the occupational health and safety lessons learned, including what our collective response should be during the next outbreak.”


For more information, contact:

Michael Hurley, President, Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE, 416-884-0770
Pat Daley, CUPE Communications, 416-616-6142