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A registered nurse in the ICU at the Humber River Hospital in Toronto on April 13, 2021. Sixty-two per cent of all health care workers surveyed said they were suffering from anxiety, with 35 per cent reporting severe anxiety related to workplace violence and aggression.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Incidents of physical violence, sexual assault and racism against Ontario health care workers are up during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new poll from Canada’s largest union.

Tuesday’s Canadian Union of Public Employees survey, based off responses from more than 2,300 registered nurses, personal support workers, cleaning staff and other front-line employees, found that an overwhelmingly female work force is being subjected to “an increasingly dangerous and toxic workplace” owing to regular attacks and threats from patients and their families.

Such incidents are reportedly increasing at a time when the health care sector is experiencing significant staffing shortages, which policy critics have attributed to a combination of burnout from the pandemic and a lack of equitable pay and benefits for workers.

Alongside direct acts of violence, assault and abuse, hospital employees face an uphill battle when seeking justice from their employers, police and the government, said Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, during a Tuesday press conference.

“This surge in violence against women, much of it racially-motivated, comes as a backdrop of severe and predictable staff shortages and vacancies in our hospitals,” Ms. Richer said.

Over half of all respondents to the poll said they and their colleagues faced more incidents of violence and abuse than before the pandemic began, with less than 40 per cent reporting the same amount or less.

Sixty-two per cent of all health care workers surveyed said they were suffering from anxiety, with 35 per cent reporting severe anxiety related to workplace violence and aggression.

Anthony Dale, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Hospitals Association, emphasized in an e-mail Tuesday that hospitals have a zero tolerance when it comes to violence.

“While we know that the work performed by health care providers is often challenging and demanding, acts of violence are never accepted as something that staff members should expect to face within the workplace,” Mr. Dale said.

Some health care workers, however, have said that zero-tolerance policies at hospitals are not being enforced.

Sonja Bernhard, a registered nurse working at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said she and many of her colleagues are being stretched thin by current working conditions and warns that health care workers will continue to find work elsewhere if there isn’t improvement.

Citing an experience she had recently in which a close colleague was sexually assaulted by a patient, Ms. Bernhard said she has reduced her hours to part-time at the hospital while teaching courses at a nearby college to help manage her mental health.

Ms. Bernhard said such incidents are regular and speak to neglect by hospital administration and various levels of government when it comes to properly compensating workers and ensuring that those who experience violence and abuse are well taken care of.

She also said it is indicative of a larger issue in health care, where nurses and other front-line workers are expected to endure the risk of physical and sexual harm as “part of the job.”

“It’s always been part of the culture,” Ms. Bernhard said. “We have to have a higher tolerance for not only physical aggression but also verbal abuse. Not just from patients, but from their visitors and families.”

In addition to highlighting incidents of violence, CUPE and the Ontario NDP have called upon the Ford government to address the growing issue of overcrowded emergency rooms amid unprecedented staffing shortages.

“Health care professionals are exhausted, their colleagues are leaving constantly, and we are reaching the point where there aren’t enough people to keep the doors to the ER open around the clock – and that’s terrifying,” interim provincial NDP leader Peter Tabuns said, pointing to the potential for worsening hospital conditions and lengthier wait times as more health care workers quit.

Since 2019, the Ford government has been embroiled in a battle with health care workers and the Official Opposition over its implementation of Bill 124, which limited the amount a public sector employee’s pay could increase to just 1 per cent per year.

Although the bill was only supposed to be active for three years, it is unclear if the Ford government will keep with its promise to axe the legislation this year.

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