It’s not every day that a major Ontario psychiatric hospital is placed on trial, much less two.
Health care workers across the province will be closely watching the outcome of an ongoing trial following charges against the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The Royal unsuccessfully sought a stay of proceedings, arguing that testimony could be tainted by recent media coverage. The Ottawa Citizen reports that Justice of the Peace John Doran rejected the hospital’s arguments, noting that witness statements obtained before the trial would serve as a “baseline” of evidence.
As the trial got underway in December new charges were laid against the Royal Ottawa following an alleged stabbing of a nurse by a patient in October at the hospital’s Brockville site. The stabbing narrowly missed her carotid artery.
Following the attack, the Ontario Nurses’ Association applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for an Interim Order to place trained security guards on the unit where the alleged assault took place. ONA represents registered nurses at the Royal. The OLRB responded November 26 issuing an order to provide 24/7 security on the unit – an order the hospital has yet to comply with.
Representing two bargaining units at the Royal Ottawa’s Brockville site, OPSEU is seeking intervener status on this new case despite opposition from the hospital’s legal counsel.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was also charged under the same Act in December — about a week after OPSEU and ONA issued a joint press release calling for action following an alleged January 2014 assault that left a registered practical nurse beaten beyond recognition. Both the OPSEU RPN and the ONA nurse who came to her assistance have been off work since the incident.
This is also not the first charge of its kind at CAMH – in 2009 the hospital was fined $70,000 after it pled guilty to two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act following two separate incidents in which nurses were assaulted.
Despite the new charges, ONA says CAMH failed to immediately notify them of a new critical incident that took place December 29 contrary to the requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Workers in the health care sector have long complained there are two unwritten standards when it comes to prosecutions under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – one for the private sector and another for the public sector. As the number of incidents has escalated, OPSEU has advocated that the Ministry of Labour take the next step and enforce the Act through the courts. Dr. Leon Genosove, the Ministry of Labour’s Chief Physician, also spent a day last June hearing from OPSEU members and other invited experts on the issue during a forum organized by the union’s mental health division.
The new prosecutions may be a sign that the Ministry is finally listening. This is a significant change after years of mostly limiting their intervention to issuing orders at Ontario’s public hospitals.
Patients with mental illness are no more violent than the rest of society – as the patient advocates themselves admit, they are more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. However, acuity rates are on the rise in Ontario’s psychiatric hospitals while staffing and services are either stagnant or in decline. Workers are telling us that this is leading to more unsafe working conditions.
In December Scientific America dubbed the rise of violence against health care workers to be an “epidemic,” pointing the finger at a number of officials including hospital administrators.
“Better violence-prevention plans – including training and incident reporting – can lessen the risk, but their adoption is stymied by indifference … the general disregard discourages health-care workers from reporting assaults, thus compounding the problem.”
In the U.S. nearly half of the assaults on came from patients or family members who were drunk or on drugs. Further, Scientific America estimates that half of the physical assaults on nurses go unreported while 80 per cent of verbal abuse goes unreported.