COMMENTARY : Does a Registered Nurse’s Life Matter Less?

On March 11, 2019, a Nurse Manager at the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital was seriously assaulted by a man for more than 11 minutes. She was dragged from her chair, thrown against a wall, and beaten unconscious. Those who eventually came to her rescue were not security guards or police, but her fellow nurses.  Throughout 2019, I travelled to the Moncton Courthouse where myself and dozens of nurses gathered in solidarity to support our member. Cameras rolled, photos were snapped, and questions were asked – but what has changed?

On June 4, 2019, hundreds of Registered Nurses (RN) and Nurse Practitioners from across Canada joined me at New Brunswick’s Legislature to bring their personal stories of workplace violence to the attention of this province’s MLAs.  Our rallying cry was: “Enough is Enough!” Just days later, yet another RN was attacked at the Georges-Dumont Hospital, when he was stabbed with a shard of broken glass – but what has changed?

Throughout 2019, we learned through media reports that New Brunswick hospitals experience more than 2000 Code Whites annually, a number that has been rising by 20% year-over-year. We learned that our hospitals see an average of 4.5 violent incidents each day. We learned about police calls and questionable violence tracking. We learned that employees of hospitals and nursing homes account for 42% of all accepted injury claims for workplace violence in New Brunswick.  The evidence was there, and it was overwhelming – but what has changed?

In September of 2019, media outlets across New Brunswick reported that half the security guard positions in our hospitals were vacant, leaving healthcare workers dangerously exposed. The Province’s security contractor, GardaWorld, had been unable to fill many of its positions for the $12 an hour wages the health authorities were offering.  Health authority CEO’s were summoned to the Legislature to answer questions.  Emails flew, phone calls were made, and meetings were held.  By December of that year the Horizon Health Board Chair, and previous Horizon CEO, John McGarry, told the Telegraph Journal that violence levels in Horizon hospitals were “out of control.”  As President of New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU), I personally took our concerns directly to the Premier and the Minister of Health – but what has changed?

On January 17, 2020, New Brunswickers awoke to a Telegraph Journal headline that should have ended this debate once and for all: “We Are Sitting On A Time Bomb,” the headline read.  In the story, internal emails from Horizon’s security managers laid out – in damning detail – the urgent and dangerous security situation that one manager called “an unacceptable risk.”  The media cycle buzzed, politicians expressed ‘concern,’ the provincial budget came and went – but what has changed?

The answer, of course, is nothing. Nothing has changed. Now, on June 18, without those enhanced security measures, yet another RN has been brutally attacked by a patient with a knife at the Miramichi Hospital, and the security guard held against his will by the same knife wielding patient.

Although it received far less attention, something else important happened on June 18.  Peace officers gained the right to operate legally in New Brunswick’s legislature, to see to the increased safety of our MLAs.  MLAs themselves recently voted for those changes by quickly and quietly amending The Sheriff Act.  Peace officers and metal detectors also protect New Brunswick courthouses. Why the difference? MLA’s are 80% male and Registered Nurses are 96% female. Are the lives of New Brunswick healthcare workers worth less?  Do female-dominated professions deserve less protection? The silence in response to these questions is deafening.

GardaWorld recently told the Times and Transcript that it had ‘solved’ the terrible attendance issue with its security guards. NBNU is in possession of Garda attendance records that show appalling security gaps at major regional hospitals as recently as March of this year.  In the same article, Horizon Health felt it necessary to point out that its staff receive training in how to deescalate and defuse violent situations. This ignorance and spin are unforgivable, and they are putting people’s lives in danger.  Nurses and GardaWorld security staff are not trained to disarm knife-wielding attackers or rescue their co-workers from vicious beatings.  What if that nurse was your daughter or your sister? What if she was your wife, mother or grandmother?

Those in charge do not even pretend that the safety of their predominately female workforce is among their top priorities.  In 2019 testimony before the Crown Corporation Committee, Horizon CEO Karen McGrath made clear that Horizon security guards were banned from laying hands on anyone, regardless of circumstance. That would be ‘assault,’ McGrath said.  Vitalité CEO Gilles Lanteigne told the Committee that the security crisis had not been on his list of priorities during budget discussions with Government that year.

If not politicians, if not our employers, if not security guards, who is left to protect New Brunswick nurses from this appalling violence?  Here in the era of COVID-19, RNs accept a great many risks each day, including the possibility of workplace violence. What we will not accept are our employers spinning reasonable safety measures as unreasonable asks. Registered nurses’ lives are at risk and our employers have a duty to protect us – it is as simple as that.

We do not accept that the lives of MLAs matter more than the lives of Registered Nurses, or any healthcare worker. We do not accept that a healthcare worker must die before change finally comes. Government must act and act now, before New Brunswickers wake up to the one headline we can all see coming, but which none of us will be able to bear.

Enough is Enough!

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Commentary by: Paula Doucet, NBNU President.

The New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU) is a labour organization of approximately 6900 Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners who are employed in various healthcare facilities throughout the province of New Brunswick. Together, we form a strong and unified voice.