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Health minister unveils violence reduction plan for hospitals

University Hospital of Northern B.C. included in Health Minister's plan to hire 320 "protection service officers"

The B.C. government announced Monday a program to help reduce violence against health-care workers at 26 hospitals and mental health facilities across the province, including University Hospital of Northern B.C.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said 320 "protection service officers" and 14 "violence prevention leads" will be hired to enhance the safety of nurses and other health-care staff as well as patients and the public.

Specifics for UHNBC were not provided and other than to say the government is "proceeding now" with the hiring and training process, Dix did not provide a timeline for when the changes will come into effect. 

He said the protection service officers will be unionized, government employees rather than provided through private companies and will receive training that "ensures that all security personnel have awareness of patients and their surroundings as well as how to anticipate, de-escalate and ultimately prevent aggression."  

He said that since the summer of 2021, over 4,400 reported incidents of violence have occurred, resulting in about $7 million in employee time-loss claims, but the impact on workers can't be quantified in dollars.

The BC Nurses Union has been calling for better protective measures for its members for at least 30 years.

Its president, Aman Grewal, said nurses are punched, kicked, grabbed and verbally and sexually harassed at increasingly dangerous workplaces, where injury rates are under-reported and higher than those affecting first responders.

Grewal said the stress and fear at work has been compounded due to staffing shortages as people lash out at nurses for everything from long wait-lists to cancelled surgeries.

UHNBC has seen its share of such trouble.

An incident in January, in which a patient in the acute psychiatric care unit threatened staff, sparked an investigation by WorkSafeBC and became a source of conflict between hospital staff and Prince George RCMP.

A WorkSafeBC inspector found, in part, that Northern Health's policy for dealing with violent behaviour does not have specific instructions on when to call security prior to calling RCMP for assistance when they deem it necessary.

The inspector also noted unsecured chairs and unattended metal cutlery out of concern they could be used as weapons.

According to an email chain provided to the Citizen, a staff member at UHNBC sent a message to two city council members describing the situation and questioning the RCMP's lack of response.

According to the staff member, the detachment complained to the hospital that it was receiving calls for help when police were not needed and that RCMP had later "refused to come assist with an aggressive, violent and unpredictable client." 

"Working so closely in mental health, I can attest that the aggression and violence here has become worse. Many of our nurses and staff have had near misses, last week a security guard was punched," the staff member added.

In a response included in the email chain, Prince George RCMP Supt. Shawn Wright said police "will attend to assist if an incident is extraordinary in nature (i.e. when there is insufficient hospital staff to conduct the restraint).  Given the size of UHNBC, it would be a rare circumstance that police intervention should be required." 

Dix said the anti-violence strategy will be developed by a new organization called Switch BC, which stands for Safety, Well-being, Innovation, Training and Collaboration in Health Care. It involves doctors, employers and three unions, including those representing nurses, medical lab techs, occupational therapists and cleaning and dietary staff.

- with files from Camille Bains, The Canadian Press