One out of every four people who filed a claim for a workplace injury in B.C.'s residential social-services sector were hurt as a result of a violent episode, a rate that has increased by about 50 per cent over the past decade, according to data from WorkSafeBC.
The residential-services sector – a "classification unit" in WorkSafeBC's industry ranking system – is part of the larger health-care and social-services "subsector" and includes group homes for troubled youth, but not long-term seniors' homes.
Those long-term facilities are included in the broader health-care and social-services sector, in which violence-related claims account for about 10 per cent of the total. For the province over all, workplace violence accounts for 2.7 per cent of all claims.
WorkSafeBC cautions against drawing conclusions from the data, saying the increase likely reflects multiple factors, including growing awareness among workers and employers that workplace violence should be reported. The agency defines violence as attempted or actual use of force that causes injury, as well as threatening behaviour that makes workers believe their safety could be at risk.
But the head of an organization that represents group-home operators and other social-service providers is drawing a link between increased reports of workplace violence and government policies, including what he describes as "flat-lined" funding for social services.
In a submission to a budget committee last month, Federation of Community Social Services of B.C. executive director Rick FitzZaland said workplace violence is related to three factors: underfunding, the increased number of people seeking help from social-service agencies and poor pay for social-service workers.
Those factors can result in poorly trained, inexperienced workers dealing with stressed clients, increasing the potential for workplace violence, he maintains.
"It is a canary in the mine," Mr. FitzZaland said on Thursday, referring to WorkSafeBC data.
"Clients are getting to our agencies after they've been delayed and when [their needs] have become more complex. Whatever they were challenged with earlier, it has become more complex, so they are getting there in a more difficult circumstance," he said.
"We think that's what's going on."
To reverse the trend, Mr. FitzZaland is calling for increased government funding for services for children, youth and families, which he said would help, among other things, to reduce wait lists and allow contractors to pay higher wages to their employees.
In doing so, he joins a chorus of recent calls for more government funding for child welfare.
Last week, the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union released a report that claimed the province's aboriginal child-welfare system is complex and underfunded.
On the same day, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth released a report that said the province has fewer front-line child-care workers today than it did in 2002, and that ministry standards are not being met as a result.
In response, Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the ministry has filled 110 of 200 new positions that were announced last year, with the rest expected to be hired by the end of this year, and that staffing would be re-evaluated once all of those workers are in place.
The number of violence claims in the residential social-services unit has increased from an average of 70 per year between 2003 and 2009 to an average of 108 per year between 2009 and 2013, or by about 50 per cent.
Workplace violence is a serious concern, especially in health-care settings, said Stephen Symon, a manager with WorkSafeBC's industry-and-labour services department.
"I don't believe any of us know the whole picture, but I suspect at the end of the day it's a combination of things," Mr. Symon said. "It would be ill-advised to try and create a simply cause-and-effect relationship."