workplace violence and harassment prevention kitSarah Ryan | CUPE Research

Violence is not “just part of the job,” in social services or anywhere else. Unfortunately, the social service and health care sectors have some of the highest rates of workplace violence. 
That’s why it’s critical to report all incidents of violence – and to take action.

Violence and harassment, defined
CUPE defines violence in the workplace as any incident(s) in which an employee is threatened, assaulted or abused during the course of their employment that may cause physical or psychological harm. This includes threats, attempted or actual assault, application of force, verbal abuse or harassment. Harassment is offensive behaviour that a reasonable person would consider unwelcome.

Understanding the problem
Workers in sectors like health care and social services are at risk of violence because of the public nature of their work and the fact that they are disproportionately women and racialized workers. Often, they deal with individuals who are unable to control their behavior because of mental health conditions, emotional disorders or head injuries. Sometimes, clients have a history of violence. 

Government underfunding of both sectors has exacerbated this problem. Low staffing levels and overwork increases the likelihood of violence. That’s why systemic approaches to dealing with violence prevention must begin with adequate funding models and better staffing.

Violence exists despite every employer’s responsibility under health and safety legislation to provide a healthy and safe workplace that is free from violence in all its forms. Sadly, some employers even consider violence a normal part of the job. One CUPE member said, “Every time, these incidents are shrugged off as the nature of the job and we all have to deal with it.”

The scale of violence
Study after study has shown that violence is a serious issue in health care and social services. But, surprisingly, governments do not keep national statistics on the rates of violence faced by workers in these sectors. 

Here’s what we know:

  • 90 per cent of Canadian front-line residential care workers experienced physical violence from residents (or their relatives)
  • 74 per cent of surveyed community social service workers in British Columbia said they had experienced at least one type of violence in the past year
  • 75 per cent of child welfare staff in Ontario reported experiencing violence during their careers 
  • 73 per cent of respondents to a survey in Ontario’s developmental services sector reported that they had experienced an incident of violence at work

Workers also find themselves dealing with client-on-client violence. Sixty-four per cent of respondents to a survey in Ontario’s developmental services sector reported that they had witnessed violence by one supported individual against another supported individual. 

Violence hurts workers and it also hurts our clients and patients.

Take action
Violence is not part of the job. Here’s how we can tackle the issue:

  • Encourage members to report ALL incidents of violence and harassment
  • Make violence prevention a standing agenda item for your health and safety committee
  • If the employer will not make the workplace safe from violence, work with your CUPE representative to contact the health and safety enforcement body in your province
  • Engage members and leaders in training and discussion on violence and harassment in the workplace
  • Bargain collective agreement language on violence and harassment

For more, check out CUPE’s Violence Prevention Kit and Stop Harassment Guide.