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‘Part of the job’ no excuse for workplace violence

Health-care workers face high risk of workplace violence and harassment, but employers aren’t meeting their health and safety obligations
Health-care workers often face an increased risk of violence in the workplace because they have to deal with patients who can be unstable and unpredictable. Shutterstock

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Workplace violence, when it happens, is a serious problem for any employer — or at least it should be. Some professions are more vulnerable to workplace violence than others, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted as part of the job. Occupational health and safety legislation across the country is designed to protect workers from violence and harassment in the workplace, and they don’t have exceptions based on industry.

Health-care workers often face an increased risk of violence in the workplace because they have to deal with patients who can be unstable and unpredictable. It can be easy for workers and employers in the industry to become resigned to the fact that the risk for violence is always going to be there and will sometimes happen — but it doesn’t free the employers from taking all the precautions they can to reduce that risk.

Canadian HR Reporter recently reported on a recent study examining violence suffered by workers at long-term care facilities in Ontario. According to the researchers, violence, abuse, and harassment are so common for these workers that it’s considered “part of the job” and employers aren’t meeting their legal obligation to try to prevent it or help employees who have experienced it.

The article, by John Dujay, also referred to a survey of 1,223 personal support workers and practical nurses by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and the Canadian Union of Public Employees in which 88 per cent experienced physical violence in the workplace, but 53 per cent didn’t file incident reports.

In any other career or industry, this level of workplace violence would be unacceptable. Why is it allowed to happen to healthcare workers, and why aren’t employers being held more accountable?

Perhaps it’s because much of the violence is perpetrated by patients who don’t really understand what they’re doing or the consequences. This is particularly the case in long-term care facilities, where staff are caring for patients who are elderly or mentally ill. There’s no doubt in these circumstances violence and harassment is more common. But that just means employers have to do more to mitigate the risk.

Employers are required under health and safety legislation to protect workers from violence and harassment in the workplace. In Ontario, for example, the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace violence as “the exercise or physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker." This includes unsuccessful attempts and threats to cause such violence. There are no exceptions for health-care workers.

Harassment is defined as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to beknown to be unwelcome,” which includes sexual harassment. Mentally ill and unstable patients may not always have the capacity to understand if their behaviour is unwelcome, but employers do.

So while the risk of workplace violence or harassment may be part of the job in the health-care industry, it doesn’t make it any more acceptable. It just means that legally, employers must take even more precautions — wherever possible — to reduce the risk and help employees who are subjected to it.

More education for both managers and front-line employees on recognizing risky situations, having a clear reporting process in place, and identifying high-risk situations are all measures employers can reasonably take to help deal with the problem. Not to mention acknowledging the effects violence and harassment can have on employees and giving them the tools to cope with it — time off and counselling, for example, rather than just sending them right back to work.

Part of the problem could also be shortstaffing, where the responsibility may lie with governments that control the funding of the health-care industry. It’s hard for a government on one hand to legally require a certain level of occupational health and safety and then, on the other hand, not provide employers in the industry the means to provide that level.

Workers in all industries are entitled to workplaces that are as safe as possible under health and safety legislation. An increased risk of violence and harassment does mean it’s just “part of the job” — just letting it happen is still against the law.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, HAB Press. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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