Nurse wearing plastic face shield leaning their head ahainst their hand A poll of more than 500 Hamilton area hospital staff reveals that pandemic tensions are subjecting them to some of the highest rates of race-based and sexual harassment and assault-related violence among hospital staff, province-wide.

Polling conducted by Oracle Research on behalf of CUPE from May 17-24, shows a disturbing pandemic surge in physical and sexual violence against the hospital workforce, who in Hamilton the poll shows is 90 % female – higher than the 85 % provincial average.

The race-based and sexual assault poll numbers in the Hamilton poll are jarring.

33 % of the registered practical nurses (RPNs), cleaners, clerical and other staff identify in the Hamilton poll as racialized. 75 % of them report they are subject to harassment or abuse because of their race or appearance. That’s higher than the 71 % average on CUPE’s provincial poll of more than 2300 hospital staff across Ontario.

57 % of all categories of Hamilton hospital workers experience sexual harassment and 39 % experience sexual assault. Both numbers are higher than the 49 % and 36 % provincial numbers for the same questions.

The poll also found that 64 % of Hamilton respondents experienced physical violence. 53% have witnessed an increase in violent incidences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

16 % report an increase in the use of guns or knives against staff.

Combined between Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph’s Healthcare, there are approximately 20,400 hospital staff. If the poll findings are extrapolated to reflect that total, more than 13,056 local hospital staff - 90 % of them women - would be physically assaulted at work during the pandemic. Of that number over 5,049 of these assaults would be racially-motivated.

“The grimmest of all projections is that more than 7,956 hospital staff in Hamilton 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.