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‘They are tired’: B.C. Nurses Union president talks about violence, burnout

After assaults at Chilliwack General Hospital, Aman Grewal talks about abuse health-care workers face
B.C. Nurses Union president Aman Grewal. (BCNU)

From profanities to threats to spitting to thrown objects, nurses in British Columbia face increasing violence in hospitals.

In the wake of a violent assault of health-care workers at Chilliwack General Hospital last week, The Progress talked to B.C. Nurses Union president Aman Grewal.

On Feb. 8 just before 9:30 a.m., witnesses reported that a man walked in to the hospital attempting to visit his mother, but he refused to wear a mask. He then allegedly assaulted the screening person, then assaulted one of the housekeeping staff who was in the area.

As many as eight RCMP officers descended on the scene where the man was arrested. Christopher Allan Saunders, 42, faces three counts of assault and one count of wilfully resisting or obstructing a peace officer in connection with the incident.

Fraser Health confirmed the incident took place, and a spokesperson said violent incidents against health-care workers is unacceptable.

“Many of our health-care workers have been impacted by frightening and potentially violent behaviours with recent protests, possible improvised explosives and aggressive visitors at our sites,” Nick Eagland said via email.

Asked about the incident, Grewal called it “deplorable” but said it is all too common.

The following is an edited interview with the BCNU president.

• • • • • •

Q: Did you hear about the incident at Chilliwack General Hospital?

Aman Grewal: I hadn’t until (someone) let me know about it and then I went online to look up your story.

Q: What did you think?

Grewal: I just thought it was deplorable. That is just so unjustified, but we are seeing that all over the province. This has gotten worse since the pandemic but it is not something new, violence against nurses.

We started our very first ad campaign 30 years ago and we are still seeing it today.

Q: How common is this?

Grewal: It’s a daily occurrence. There is one form or another of violence against nurses that takes place whether that is cursing verbal abuse, you can have threats of violence. You can have actual physical violence and assault, profanities, spitting and throwing objects at nurses, urine, food trays, it’s not uncommon.

We’ve had incidents where they are using sharps, a sharp knife or anything sharp, even a needle, and threatening a nurse with that. You name it, they will use it and our nurses are unprotected and they should not be unprotected. We should have such measures in place that would protect our nurses, to protect all our health-care workers and keep the patients safe.

As the staffing levels drop, the rates of violence are increasing. (Some patients) are upset that it is taking the nurse longer to get to them, yet the nurses run ragged having an increased patient load. It’s just hand in hand. Our nurses have reported they have seen a 35 per cent increase in the amount of severity of violence in the work place between the first and third waves of the pandemic (according to a BCNU study).

Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU) in the latest survey they conducted are reporting 93 per cent of nurses experience some sort of violence in the past.

Q: What needs to be done?

Grewal: First of all, a security guard is stationary whereas what we need is hands on. That would be protection services officers that have the ability to put their hands on the patients and subdue them and arrest them. Right now, a security guard is able to go to the incident – a code white – then they are there doing traffic control. Nurses and health-care workers have to deal with the patients.

In the Interior, and in the Kootenays and up north, we have heard where it may be 20 minutes before somebody arrives. We just recently had an assault in Interior Health. The nurses said it was actually a patient that ended up subduing the perpetrator. The nurse was physically assaulted. The other nurse tried to protect the nurse but, the person was bigger.

I can’t comment on mental health, but nursing is mainly a female profession and when you have somebody that is raging and being very aggressive and violent, that is not something that you can protect yourself from. You try your best but at the same time you are fearing for your life and you are looking for how to get out of there.

I’ve heard many instances where people have had to barricade themselves. You could talk to any nurse, they can tell you the violence they have seen or witnessed or had towards themselves, or attempting to protect somebody, that has an impact on the health and safety of our members. The impact on our mental health, people are traumatized. Some have the physical trauma because they were the one that was injured but then the psychological trauma, those witnessing, the fear and anxiety of returning back to the workplace because, it could be me next time. The ones who suffered the physical harm maybe suffering with PTSD or may have physical disabilities.

Q: Have you seen any other issue that has caused this much anger toward healthcare staff

Grewal: I have seen violence but the extent that we have been seeing lately, the fact that somebody put a (fake) pipe bomb at the Surrey Memorial emergency. One, who does that? But the fear and anxiety for those nurses. It’s becoming a daily thing because of the fear and bullying and aggression that they are having to deal with.

They are tired. They are burned out.

READ MORE: Suspected bomb found at Surrey Memorial Hospital was fake, police say

Q: Whose responsibility is it? The health authorities? Government? Facility management?

Grewal: Both, all of the above. You nailed it. And we need the plan in place to keep them safe.

Government needs to fund the safety measures that are put in place, health human resources for our nurse safety with the protective service officers.

Health authority and employer all need to ensure that they are acting on that.

Q: Are nurses leaving the profession?

Grewal: I would say the nurses that are injured are. Some are not coming back because of injures and the PTSD.

Q: How are we going staff expanded healthcare facilities such as a new hospital in Cloverdale?

Grewal: When they started announcing the different hospitals they are opening, like one in Burnaby and the Cloverdale one, our ask is where are you going to get the nurses from when we already have a nursing shortage?

Q: What are you told?

Grewal: We aren’t told anything. We don’t get a response back to that. We are continuously asking for a health human resources plan from the Ministry of Health from the government and we have not seen one. They’ve had decades to address the staffing crisis that we knew was going to happen and they have not addressed it

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