Pandemic tensions and unprecedented hospital staffing shortages are fueling already high rates of violence – including sexual harassment and assaults - against Ontario’s mostly female hospital workforce, a new poll of 2300 front-line registered practical nurses (RPNs), PSWs, porters, cleaners, and other front-line hospital staff, reveals.
Polling conducted by Oracle Research on behalf of CUPE May 17-24, shows a disturbing pandemic surge in physical & sexual violence against women and racially motivated attacks and a large increase in the use of weapons like guns and knives against hospital staff. The poll found that 63% of respondents experienced physical violence. 53% report an increase in violence targeting them or a co-worker during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The race-based and sexual assault poll numbers are particularly jarring.
71% of racialized workers report they are subject to harassment or abuse because of their race or appearance. 49% of all categories of hospital workers experience sexual harassment and 36% experience sexual assault.
Equally alarming is that 18% report an increase in the use of guns or knives against staff.
About 85% of the 247,000 Ontarians who work in our hospitals are women. If the poll findings are extrapolated to the entire workforce, each year about 155,610 hospital staff would be physically assaulted at work. Of that number 61,379 would be racially-motivated.
“The grimmest of all projections is that 88,920 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,” says Sharon Richer secretary-treasurer of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU-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 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 RPN 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.
In Ontario, CUPE represent 50,000 hospital staff working at 120 sites of 65 hospital corporations.