Overhead view of library with book shelves and people reading booksAn incident on September 11 that caused a lockdown at the James L. McIntyre Centennial Library in Sault Ste. Marie, ON and triggered a Ministry of Labour investigation is a symptom of chronic health and safety problem in the city’s libraries, says CUPE 67.

“Violence against library workers is increasing, and nobody is taking our safety seriously,” says Janelle Martin, president of CUPE 67, which represents about 90 City of Sault Ste. Marie employees and 50 public library workers. 

The workers have been asking management to restore the security guards who helped protect them during the pandemic, but which were removed.

“Having security guards in a library is not the final solution, but the number of disturbing and violent incidents has been going up every year. Our members aren’t trained to deal with substance abuse or mental health crises and need to be protected. We aren’t equipped to handle what is happening and our mental health is taking a hit,” she said.

The local is asking for security as an emergency measure while the city, province, and the federal government address the root causes of the incidents, including a lack of affordable and supported housing, proper mental health and income supports, and supports for people caught in the opioid crisis.

Further, they are asking that guards assigned to the library be provided extra training so they can safely and respectfully assist people in distress, particularly when they are also from marginalized communities.

“A lot of the incidents are the result of various levels of government having abdicated their responsibilities,” she said. “Until they fix the problems, library workers are on the front line of almost every social challenge in the city. And it’s wearing on us. Staff are having more mental health issues and are scared to come in to work.”

Many incidents occur at the Centennial Library during the evenings and on weekends, when management is absent and cuts have left the library with a skeleton staff of just three adults.

Staff are required to check washrooms in case of an overdose. With so few staff on duty, this has meant women checking washrooms alone. This has resulted in a worker being cornered in a terrifying incident. 

“The lockdown was not an isolated incident. It was a symptom of a chronic problem, and it is long past time that the library’s management and board started taking this seriously,” said Martin.