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Patient tosses hot coffee at nurse in latest assault at Hamilton hospital

Recent attacks include beatings, threats, even a hurled phone


(Canadian OH&S News) — St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. is facing an urgent violence crisis, the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) has warned following a Jan. 12 attack on a female nurse at the organization’s Mountain site — the latest reported incident in a series of brutal assaults against staff over the past few weeks.

A patient at the facility threw a boiling cup of coffee into the face of a registered practical nurse (RPN) that day, according to ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud. The nurse hit the emergency button on her personal alarm, but the batteries were dead.

“These batteries are supposed to last two years,” said Haslam-Stroud, who has been employed as a registered nurse (RN) with St. Joseph’s since 1977. “The Ministry of Labour was in, in the last few weeks, actually testing some of the joint health and safety committee members’ alarms, and two of them that they tested were not even working.”

The coffee incident joins a pattern of violent attacks on St. Joseph’s employees since mid-December, she added. On Jan. 4, a patient at the Charlton Campus threw a cell phone at two employees, causing minor injuries; the patient was later arrested. On Dec. 23, another patient beat up an RN and an RPN in what Haslam-Stroud called an “aggressive” assault.

“Their heads were pummelled into the cement floor, and one of them lost consciousness,” she said about the Dec. 23 incident. “They were taken to the emergency.”

Earlier, a man out of the hospital on a day pass bought a gun with a relative’s help. “This patient had actually been threatening to kill one of my nurses. And he’s also been threatening to kill other staff,” said Haslam-Stroud. “He was basically stopped when he was trying to purchase ammunition.” Another patient, who destroyed property at the Charlton site on Christmas Eve Day, already had such a high record of aggression that the police brought in a SWAT team to detain him.

St. Joseph’s president Dr. David Higgins acknowledged that violence had been an issue at the facilities, but could not provide specific details due to patient confidentiality.

“Any incident of violence against our staff is a great concern to us, something we take seriously and investigate,” Dr. Higgins told COHSN. “Their safety and the safety of our patients is a priority.”

Dr. Higgins elaborated on steps that St. Joseph’s had taken to deal with violence. “We encourage reporting of violent incidents and embarked on a campaign to ensure staff is aware of the broader definitions of violence — for example, that it might include verbal abuse,” he explained. “This increases opportunity for reporting.”

In addition, Dr. Higgins claimed, the organization had developed a collaborative process with its health and safety committees and a good relationship with the police.

“To enhance safety, we’ve established many measures: code systems, personal alarms, security cameras, security backup and proper de-escalation training,” he said. “The challenge we face is recognizing the importance of reporting, preventing and managing violence in the workplace, but also recognizing our mission to care for those with mental illness and those whose minds have been affected by other toxicities and cognitive problems such as dementia.”

Haslam-Stroud said that more was needed. “St. Joe’s is years behind in building an anti-violence strategy and action plan that will prevent violent incidences and respond to violent incidences,” she said. “The lip service is not actually creating that safe work environment.”

ONA had attempted to persuade St. Joseph’s to follow the example of Toronto East General Hospital by putting up signs warning that no violence would be tolerated, Haslam-Stroud recalled. “We asked for that as one minor step in a larger plan to work with them on a major violence strategy,” she said, “and 18 months later, they still don’t even have the signs.

“With all due respect to Dave Higgins and his senior team, violence has not been a priority.”

Funding has been another issue of late. The threat of budget cuts to healthcare institutions across the province has ONA concerned that the violence will get even worse.

“Like all Ontario hospitals, we are facing inflationary pressures that require us to find cost-saving measures,” Dr. Higgins conceded. “St. Joseph’s will be seeking $26 million over two years. We’ll do this through a number of avenues, but the safety of our staff will remain a priority and the measures will not affect staff safety.”

Haslam-Stroud was not buying it.

“We need to stop the excuses,” she said. “Until we have management saying, ‘We agree — violence isn’t part of the job,’ then we aren’t going to get to the next step of actually preventing it.”