(Canadian OH&S News) — The British Columbia Government and General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) has been working with the province’s Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation (MSDSI) to help protect the ministry’s employees from violence, particularly during a recent cheque-issuing week.
According to the BCGEU, MSDSI workers have been reporting death threats and rocks thrown through office windows with increasing frequency. As a result, the union and the ministry conducted several meetings to plan for extra protection during the cheque-issuing week at the end of May — including additional security guards at all MSDSI cheque-issuing offices.
Doug Kinna, vice-president of the BCGEU’s social information health component, noted that a technological failure had indirectly led to the recent spate of threats and other incidents. The computer system that the income assistance employees use, Integrated Case Management (or ICM), had gone down, he said.
“They couldn’t do their work properly for about a week,” Kinna said of the workers, adding that clients were unable to receive cheques or medical transportation as a result. “When people are frustrated, they tend to act out, especially when you’ve got hungry kids at home.”
Fortunately, Kinna said, no actual assaults occurred. “The ministry said that any office that wanted security could have it, and they beefed up security in offices,” he said. “Where they normally have one guard, they had two, and then some offices, they had two or three, and they increased that.” Security personnel in MSDSI offices handle crowd control rather than act as bouncers, Kinna explained.
“British Columbia’s Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation takes the health and well-being of its staff and the people the ministry serves very seriously,” an MSDSI press statement said about the security hike. “During the ministry’s June income assistance cheque run, there were no increases in critical incidents reported by the ministry’s regional offices… Reports from the ministry’s five regional offices are that their staff felt safe, well prepared and well supported on cheque issue day.”
The MSDSI also confirmed that “a system traffic jam” had caused the temporary work stoppage in late May. “Systems experts have identified a variety of factors that may have contributed to the recent system slowdown,” the ministry said. “Changes or occasional issues in the broader environment may impact the performance of government computer programs.”
On May 27, the BCGEU put out a press release announcing the extra security in MSDSI offices for that week and reminding ministry employees of their right to refuse unsafe work if there is reasonable cause to believe there is a safety risk.
The BCGEU also advised MSDSI workers to report any concerns about violence to their supervisors, who are obligated to investigate the risks. “If the supervisor disagrees,” the union stated, “you have the right to bring in a member of your joint Occupational Health & Safety Committee or a union steward to participate in further investigation.”
According to Kinna, occasional violent threats had already been a problem for MSDSI employees.
“It’s been happening for a while, and then when the computer went down, it was a huge escalation,” he said. “Now that the computer system seems to be running properly, everything’s sort of calmed down.”
The BCGEU continues to work with the MSDSI to improve safety in government offices across the province. It’s also working with other provincial ministries, including the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
“As far as we can get it going in the right direction, then we’ll continue working with them,” said Kinna. “If not, we’ll start calling WorkSafeBC and saying, ‘Things aren’t being done right here.’”