Contract negotiations between the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) abruptly broke down today following the hospitals’ refusal to address the issue of workplace violence.

Although other sectors have seen decreases in workplace violence, incidents in health care are rising in Ontario. Nearly half of direct care hospital staff report being assaulted by patients or patients’ family members each year. It is widely acknowledged that incidents of workplace violence are under-reported because of fear of employer reprisal which hinders health care staff from reporting violent incidents.

In addition to protection from reprisal for speaking out, improving health and safety measures such as providing personal alarms for all staff, enhancing internal systems to flag violent patients and increasing staffing levels in emergency departments and psychiatric units where staff are vulnerable to assault is a key priority in this round of provincial bargaining for 27,000 Ontario hospital staff, including nurses, cleaners and dietary, administrative and trades staff at 120 hospital sites in communities across Ontario represented by CUPE.

CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU/CUPE) and the OHA have been in bargaining since June for a renewal collective agreement.

“Ontario hospital staff, including those that we represent, are the most productive in Canada. While we have modest economic expectations, we did expect that the hospitals would address the problem of violence in our workplaces. Unfortunately, despite widespread evidence of an epidemic of violent assaults against health care staff, Ontario’s hospitals have little interest in bargaining constructive measures to reduce and prevent workplace violence.

“What we are proposing, in collective bargaining would protect both staff and patients. However the hospitals have refused to engage in meaningful dialogue of this very important issue,” says OCHU president Michael Hurley.

Increasing staffing in areas where violence is prevalent (like psychiatry and the emergency departments), providing alarms, counselling and other supports to workers who are the victims of violence; creating adequate reporting between the Crown, police, corrections, other health care institutions and hospitals to identify potentially violent patients are among the proposals put forth by OCHU/CUPE that “regrettably this far have been completely rejected by the hospitals.”

Last May, CUPE and UNIFOR nurses appealed to Premier Kathleen and Ontario MPPs to help with the systemic and widespread problem of violence against health care staff, the vast majority of whom are women.

“Many hospital staff have been beaten so badly they will never work again. We are incredibly disheartened that the hospitals are refusing to address this huge problem in collective bargaining,” says OCHU secretary-treasurer Sharon Richer.