Nurse wearing plastic face shield leaning their head ahainst their hand From hurled racial slurs to an oxygen tank projectile, pandemic tensions are subjecting hospital staff throughout northern Ontario high rates of workplace violence say CUPE and Unifor. Jointly the two unions represent several thousand front-line staff working in northern hospitals – including Kenora’s Lake of the Woods, St. Joseph’s Care Group (Thunder Bay) and the Sault Area Hospital.

Recent Oracle Research polling for CUPE of 2300 front-line hospital staff (including in northern Ontario) shows a disturbing pandemic surge in physical & sexual violence against the hospital workforce, who in northern hospitals are 91% female.

While just 13% of the 239 registered practical nurses, cleaners, clerical and other staff polled in the at several northern Ontario hospitals identify as racialized, 78% of them report they are subject to harassment or abuse because of their race or appearance. A number higher than on the provincial survey where 71% of racialized respondents reported race-based violence.

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

The poll also found that 60% 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 2200 staff working at Thunder Bay’s St. Joseph’s Care Group, more than 1900 at the Sault Area Hospital and nearly 550 at Lake of the Woods Hospital in Kenora. If the northern Ontario poll findings are extrapolated to reflect those staffing totals (respectively) 1,320 St. Joseph’s, 1,140 Sault and 330 Lake of the Woods hospital staff would be physically assaulted at work during the pandemic.

“The grimmest of all projections is that combined – just between those three hospitals in the north – 1,767 staff would be sexually assaulted at work in the last two years. 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 among fewest staff and beds to population of any developed economy. Often front-line hospital staff are working alone in circumstances where they are very vulnerable to assault. Under the heavy workloads,

In July staff at the Sault Area Hospital were assaulted by a patient who hurled an oxygen tank and uttered threats. In the fall of 2021, several staff at Lake of the Woods in Kenora quit the hospital over what that administration said was a 300% rise in harassment of staff.

“The increase in incidents of violence over the course of the pandemic is a major concern and continues contributing to the current staffing crisis in our hospital sector,” said Andy Savela, Unifor Health Care Director.

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.