(Canadian OH&S News) — About 200 bus drivers from throughout Canada gathered at the Queensway bus loop in Kelowna, British Columbia on June 8 to hold a rally against violence on the job, an event staged by the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada (ATU) just before its annual general meeting in the city.
Clad in yellow ATU T-shirts, the group consisted of union members demanding action to prevent assaults against transit operators. The rally came in the wake of four assaults against B.C. Transit drivers that had allegedly occurred in Kelowna within a span of a few hours on May 20, according to ATU national president Paul Thorp.
“It was an excellent rally,” Thorp told COHSN. “The mayor came out of City Hall and met with us, discussed our issues. We were able to talk to a number of the citizens who requested shirts as well, buttons, and gave their full support to us.”
“We just wanted to bring attention to everyone that bus drivers are being assaulted on an extremely high basis,” said Scott Lovell, president of ATU Local 1722, which represents B.C. Transit drivers in Kelowna. “It more often than not goes unnoticed, and it’s not acceptable, anyway, to be assaulted for doing a job.”
Thorp called the May 20 attacks “an unprecedented occurrence” in Canada.
“Somewhere along the way, it’s become acceptable to spit on somebody or slap them because they’re dissatisfied with service, where our operators have absolutely no control over the scheduling,” he continued. “It happens every day, in every municipality, across Canada.”
“One assault is unacceptable. Four is an epidemic, in one day,” said Lovell.
John Palmer, director of safety and emergency management with B.C. Transit, said that violence against bus operators was a concern for the employer as well.
“We take it very seriously. We feel there’s certainly an urgent need to respond appropriately to these concerns,” said Palmer.
He agreed that the May 20 series of assaults “in one location on one day” was very unusual. “Kelowna historically doesn’t stand out as any worse than anywhere else in the province,” said Palmer. “There are assaults in areas all across the province and all across the country.”
Thorp cited Bill S-221, which amended the Criminal Code last year to make an assault victim’s profession as a transit operator an “aggravating circumstance” in the sentencing of an assailant (COHSN, Feb. 24, 2015). “Unfortunately, our legal system is not upholding that law, and they’re quite often plea-bargaining the charges down to time served or a slap on the wrist,” he noted. “It doesn’t stop people from assaulting.”
De-escalation training doesn’t guarantee safety either, added Thorp. “It’s done through the hiring process and throughout on how to de-escalate a situation. Unfortunately, if somebody has got it in their mind that they’re going to spit on you or assault you,” they cannot necessarily be calmed down, he said.
Among the changes that the ATU is lobbying for is a panic button installed on every transit bus. “This device would actually, automatically link them with the police, and they would be able to send the authorities directly to the location because it’s all GPS-controlled,” explained Thorp. “We’re also asking for installation of safety shields that would stop people from being able to spit on operators when they become disgruntled, or slapping them, or throwing liquids on them.”
Lovell suggested a transit police force, similar to those in Vancouver and the lower B.C. mainland, as another needed safety improvement — “dealing specifically with jurisdictions on the buses or any transit properties or any transit bus loops,” he said. “And that’s nothing new.”
Palmer said that B.C. Transit was already considering installing driver barriers on buses.
“We are currently working in partnership with unions, Unifor 111 and 333, as well as WorkSafeBC, on a pilot for a driver barrier to measure the impact of it,” he said, noting that the process had involved surveying transit operators in Vancouver and Victoria for their feedback. “As a result of that, we’ve designed a second-generation barrier that addresses most of the concerns.”
B.C. Transit will be testing five prototypes of this barrier in the fall.
The ATU’s conference in Kelowna ran from June 9 to 11.