Calgary emergency room nurse Karen Melon has no doubt many violent acts on the job never get recorded on paper. In the past six months alone, four nursing colleagues have collectively been kicked, scratched, punched and bitten. One was intentionally rammed with a wheelchair, while others dodged thrown basins.
All of the incidents went unreported, said Melon, who has also faced violence at work — including choking. Melon points to long waits and insufficient staffing as factors in fuelling patients’ frustration and outbursts, particularly in emergency room waiting areas. She said posting security guards in these wards has helped reduce threats.
“We’re in a system that’s tried to maximize its efficiency with a minimal number of resources and so there’s just not enough staff,” said Melon, a former member of the professional responsibility committee, a health-care group of union and management representatives that tracks unsafe working conditions. “When a patient becomes violent or combative, there isn’t even the backup to call for people around you to come and intervene,” Melon added.
Norma Wood, director of Alberta Health Services’ workplace health and safety program, acknowledges staff resources and waits for care contribute at times to violent acts. She said the medical board is planning to develop provincial policies for dealing with and tracking workplace violence. In the meantime, measures developed under the former health regions remain in place.
“We know that it is something that is a factor in our environment for many frontline staff, especially in areas where patients and families are likely to be in pain and upset or having some mental health issues,” Wood said. Injuries linked to workplace violence caused by people, animals or self-infliction are on the decline in Alberta, but are still higher than in 2005.
There were 699 workplace violence injuries reported in 2009, compared with 770 in 2008 and a five-year high of 804 in 2006, Alberta Employment figures show. The department’s report also found that women were more likely to be injured as a result of a violent act, although men face a higher risk of injury and death on the job overall.
Sharon Young of the City of Calgary said workplace violence isn’t a significant issue for the municipality’s workers. It is a problem, however, for employees working with disabled people, said Ann Nicol of the Alberta Council of Disability Services. “When you look our client population, it’s a group with very complex needs and often they have difficulty communicating,” said Nicol, chief executive of the organization.
Nicol said workers are trained to detect signs of frustration and sense what clients need before violence erupts. However, she notes high staff turnover, low wages and limited money for ongoing training are problems for the sector.
The province is currently reviewing the funding model for agencies servicing disabled people. “Health and safety have been pressure points for agencies because often the first area that is cut by funders is training,” Nicol said. “When you work with complex-needs people, having consistency in staffing is also important. You learn about that person and their subtle communication needs. If you’ve got high turnover in staff, the risks increase.”