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Mental-health facility found not guilty on four out of five safety charges

Employer convicted of failing to reassess violence risk


(Canadian OH&S News) — A Brockville, Ont. judge has acquitted the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group on four out of five occupational health and safety charges, arising out of a patient’s attack on an employee of the Brockville Mental Health Centre (BMHC) two-and-a-half years ago.

The incident occurred on Oct. 10, 2014, when mentally ill resident Marlene Carter stabbed registered nurse Debbie Vallentgoed in the neck and head repeatedly, with a pen that Carter had hidden on her person (COHSN, June 7). Carter already had a history of violent behaviour in the prison system.

On April 25, Justice Richard Knott found Royal Ottawa, which runs the facility, guilty on only one charge — of failing to reassess for the risk of violence at the Brockville site, according to a media release from the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA). The organization was found not guilty on four other charges.

“I think it’s a fair judgement,” said Dr. A.G. Ahmed, Royal Ottawa’s forensic associate chief. “Certainly, we’ve learned a big lesson from this.”

A media statement from the organization said that it was “pleased” with Justice Knott’s decision, particularly his perception that the BMHC had proper safety procedures, policies and training in place at the time of the incident.

“Even before this incident happened, we’ve continued to improve on our policies and procedures,” said Dr. Ahmed, elaborating that Royal Ottawa’s interdisciplinary team holds a “safety huddle” every morning to assess and discuss safety risks. “We’ve developed a dynamic estimate of environmental safety,” he added. “We identify individuals that will respond to the specific needs of those patients or the environment. And finally, we continue to do our risk assessment on each patient.”

Not so content with the court’s decision is ONA, which stated in an April 26 media release that it felt “disgusted” with the trial outcome.

“I was shocked,” Vicki McKenna, ONA’s first vice president, told COHSN. “At this point, I don’t know what it’s going to take for employers to take this seriously in the healthcare setting,” she added, referring to violence against employees. If this sort of incident happened in any other sector, she speculated, the employer would be more upfront in taking accountability for it.

“Here, we have an employer that just doesn’t seem to be taking this seriously and, at the same time, is wasting healthcare dollars fighting through the courts,” said McKenna. “I’m hoping that other employers who are watching will not think, ‘Oh well, see, it doesn’t really matter’ — that they will say, ‘I don’t want our organization to get dragged through the courts like this.’”

While violence is a significant problem in Ontario’s healthcare sector, the BMHC has a higher number of incidents in its history than most facilities do, McKenna noted.

“If they want to save face, I think that they should step up to the plate here and do what they need to do to put the proper risk-assessment process in place.” Understaffing is a chronic issue at the facility, she said, as is a lack of staff security and personal alarms. “They need to do those things and to take every measure possible to make sure that they’ve got a safe environment.”

Dr. Ahmed, who was aware of ONA’s view, said that the organization was constantly evolving in its safety measures.

“I can never say there’s nothing more to do. Any day that a man says that he knows too much, and he doesn’t learn, that day, the person should stop doing whatever they’re doing,” he said. “We want to see the judge’s written decision. We’re going to look at it, and we’re going to take that into consideration in making improvements.

“We’ve improved a great deal.”