(Canadian OH&S News) — The Ontario Labour Relations Board has ordered the Brockville Mental Health Centre (BMHC) in Brockville, Ont. to install an electronic alarm system, improve staff safety training and hire security guards, in response to an appeal from the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA).
The facility is currently facing a number of criminal charges from the provincial Ministry of Labour (MOL) related to failure to keep the workplace safe for employees, following an Oct. 10, 2014 incident in which registered nurse Debbie Vallentgoed was seriously injured by a patient. According to information from ONA, a female patient with a violent background concealed a pen on her person and, after returning from the washroom, stabbed Vallentgoed with the pen in the neck and head.
Following the incident, ONA was dissatisfied with the MOL’s orders on the facility and filed an application with the Board to have security guards on the premises, explained the union’s CEO and CAO, Marie Kelly. ONA called the Board’s May 30 decision in the union’s favour “a major win for the health and safety of registered nurses” in a May 31 press release.
Kelly told COHSN that while the union was happy with the decision, it was the result of a tough year-and-a-half battle.
“We’ve not only had to battle this employer, but we’ve had to battle the Ministry of Health, who, quite frankly, could have and should have stepped in immediately with many more orders,” said Kelly. “We have had to fight tooth and nail every which way we can, in order to get safety mechanisms in place for our members at Brockville.”
Security professionals are necessary to prevent these kinds of attacks at healthcare institutions, but many employers in Ontario believe that nurses themselves should be prepared to respond to these incidents, according to Kelly.
“They believe in these situations, it should be the nurses themselves who should become the security guards and physically take on these attackers and somehow wrangle them to the floor,” she added. “It’s not their job to do this.” Unlike security guards, nurses are not trained to restrain violent patients or de-escalate attacks, said Kelly.
Cal Crocker — executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, which runs the BMHC — said that the Board’s decision had been the result of a mediation settlement to which both ONA and the employer had agreed. He called the mediation “a fair process” in which neither side had ended up with everything it wanted.
“We appreciate that it was a mediated settlement, because ultimately, we and our unions have to work together with respect to staff safety,” said Crocker.
He stressed that the BMHC had already begun replacing its security system and putting a new staff safety system in place, but that this had been an independent decision unrelated to the Board’s recent order. “Yes, we’re doing it, and we’re doing it for the right reasons, but it wasn’t because of a Labour Board order, or wasn’t because of an incident.”
Noting that Royal Ottawa treats staff safety as a priority with numerous health and safety policies and programs, Crocker explained that the organization was currently planning to increase staff training regarding sharp objects, such as knives and pens. “We’ll talk to some vendors and figure out how to incorporate that into training that we’re currently doing,” he said.
Another union that commended the Board’s ruling was the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, whose president, Warren “Smokey” Thomas, called the decision “an extremely significant conclusion… for mental health care facilities across the province” in a May 31 press statement.
Thomas added that the next step was to apply the ruling province-wide, rather than at just one facility. “Workers at Ontario’s mental-health facilities are being injured. There’s no reason to wait for more workers to get assaulted before taking them out of harm’s way… They need protection. And it’s high time they got it.”
Kelly pointed out that better staff training would also increase proper hazard assessment. The nurses working at the BMHC at the time of the attack on Vallentgoed were not even aware of the patient’s violent background, she said. The woman had already assaulted caregivers and other patients at a federal facility in Saskatchewan, and she also attacked four BHMC nurses shortly after her admission to the centre.
“Workers at a workplace are entitled to know when there’s any kind of safety hazard or risk, and in this instance, proper information wasn’t given to not only the nurses, but all of the workers at this workplace,” said Kelly. Ideally, “they would have been alerted to a higher level of concern.”
The BMHC could face substantial fines and even jail time over the Vallentgoed incident, said Kelly.