Pandemic tensions are subjecting staff at Sudbury’s Health Sciences North  and other northern Ontario hospitals to high rates of workplace violence, a new poll shows.

Polling conducted by Oracle Research on behalf of the CUPE May 17-24, shows a disturbing pandemic surge in physical & sexual violence against the hospital workforce, who in Sudbury and other northern hospitals are 91% female.

While just 13% of the more than 239 registered practical nurses, cleaners, clerical and other staff in CUPE’s northern hospital polling identify as racialized, 78% of them report they are subject to harassment or abuse because of their race or appearance. That number is higher than on CUPE’s provincial poll of 2300 hospital sector members, where 71% of racialized respondents reported race-based violence.

53% of all categories of HSN hospital workers polled experience sexual harassment and 38% experience sexual assault.

The poll also found that 60% of HSN (and northern Ontario) respondents experienced physical violence. 65% have witnessed an increase in violent incidences during the COVID-19 pandemic. 53% report feeling depressed and emotionally exhausted because of the overall conditions at work.

28% report an increase in the use of guns or knives against staff. That’s a full 10% far higher than the provincial average of 18%.

There are approximately 4000 staff working at HSN. If the Sudbury/northern Ontario poll findings are extrapolated to reflect that total, more than 2,400 hospital staff would be physically assaulted at work during the pandemic. Of that number over 400 of these assaults would be racially-motivated.

“The grimmest of all projections is that more than 1,500 HSN staff would be sexually assaulted at work. 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.

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 Melanie Viau a veteran RPN and OCHU-CUPE Francophone 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.