(Canadian OH&S News) — The president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union (BCNU), British Columbia’s largest nursing organization, has said that the union plans to start pursuing legal action whenever a nurse is injured by a patient while on the job, as long as the victim authorizes the action.
At the annual BCNU convention in Vancouver on Feb. 24, Gayle Duteil announced to hundreds of attendees that the union would press charges against attackers as well as healthcare facilities. BCNU has also developed a new policy that will provide support for nurses who experience physical or psychological injury at work, she revealed.
“We have to change society’s expectation that just because you are unwell and in a healthcare facility, that it is okay to assault a nurse, to hit or pinch or spit or bite or verbally yell at them,” BCNU vice president Christine Sorensen told COHSN. “We can’t continue to allow that to happen.”
BCNU’s intention, Sorensen added, was to get B.C. healthcare authorities to respond properly to violence against healthcare workers. “They, unfortunately, seem more interested in downplaying or covering up the violence against our nurses instead of protecting our nurses,” she charged. “And we want them to fully investigate and provide solutions that are going to reduce it.”
Sorensen cited a recent violent assault that healthcare authorities had neglected until BCNU’s intervention. “Our member reported it to WorkSafeBC,” she explained, “who had not been informed of the event and felt it was an urgent matter and, in fact, went out to the site immediately to follow up.” If it weren’t for this report, the police would not have been informed and no investigation would have been conducted, she said.
Following Duteil’s announcement, Terry Lake, the B.C. Minister of Health, told reporters at the provincial legislature in Victoria that the ministry was already working with healthcare professionals to reduce occupational violence as much as possible.
“Health authorities have a lot of programs in place to reduce violence and deescalate with training,” Lake told the reporters on Feb. 24. “If someone is assaulted, then often, I think it’s appropriate to have that looked at if there’s criminal behaviour involved.”
In the case of assailants with mental illnesses, Lake said that it was up to the legal system to determine whether they were criminally responsible for their actions. “Often, there’s a lack of awareness on the part of the patient,” he noted. “Fortunately, we have very well-trained nurses, psychiatrists and people who work in the mental-health system. They know how to deescalate behaviour.”
Sorensen said that BCNU was also planning to create a phone line, through which healthcare professionals could report violent incidents, by June 11. “So we want to have our hotline up and running, so that we can find out more of what’s going on with our members,” she said.
She added that security, training and staffing were woefully inadequate in B.C. healthcare facilities. “Nurses do not go to nursing school to learn takedowns, to learn how to deal with violent patients.”
Lake acknowledged that nursing on the frontline could be a dangerous job. “When people are ill, whether they have physical ailments or mental illness, they can react in a surprising way that can be violent,” he said. “We’ve seen that happen, where the patient does become violent and people get hurt.”
Asked whether the BCNU’s plans were a broadside against the Ministry of Health, Lake replied that he intended to assist healthcare unions in making their workplaces safer.
“Their members deserve to have a safe workplace,” he said, adding that when people are mentally or physically ill, “their behaviour can be unpredictable. We need to make sure nurses are well-trained, that personnel are available to deescalate and to manage any potentially violent situation.
“The safety of the workplace is extremely important to us,” Lake said.