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Most nurses don’t feel safe, NSGEU survey finds


NSGEU President Jason MacLean is shown at a news conference in February. The union wants the province to strike a working group to look into nurse safety issues. - File
NSGEU President Jason MacLean is shown at a news conference in February. The union wants the province to strike a working group to look into nurse safety issues. - File

Only 12 per cent of nurses who took part in an NSGEU survey feel safe at work, the union said Thursday.

The survey was sent to 3,147 nurses who are members of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, the NSGEU said in a news release. The union received 1,009 responses.

“Members were given more than 10 days to complete the survey. The results were extremely alarming,” the release said.

Besides the large number of nurses who felt unsafe at work, the survey indicated most nurses believe patients are being put at risk because of short-staffing, and 69 per cent of respondents say they have witnessesd or been involved in a “near miss” or adverse event at work.

Respondents reported being bitten, kicked or hit by patients or patients' family members; an increased number of patient falls because nursing staff weren't available to provide one-on-one care and management’s refusal to call in patient attendants; and an increased number of bedsores because nurses don’t have time to provide full personal care or post-operative baths or to turn patients as frequently as they should.

“The results of this survey clearly show that nurses are struggling to provide safe patient care, given the consistent staffing shortages they are facing on the front lines,” NSGEU president Jason MacLean said in the release. “Something must be done, now, to address the very serious concerns our members are bringing forward.”

The union wants the provincial health department to establish a working group that includes union representatives, government officials and Nova Scotia Health Authority managers to “identify immediate solutions to improve safety at our hospitals for staff and patients.”

The union said it put out the survey after the health authority recently withdrew a similar poll of employees.

A spokeswoman for the health authority said it postponed its survey “due to a number of competing priorities,” although the document has been shared with an unspecified number of managers.

Health Minister Randy Delorey said the number of nurses expressing safety worries was concerning.

“I believe all workers in all workplaces, . . . including health care, it’s important for people to have a safe work environment,” Delorey told The Chronicle Herald on Thursday afternoon.

As for the NSGEU’s request for a working group to be struck, “I think that’s something I’d have to look into a little further,” while noting that the province and health-care unions already collaborate on ways to improve workplace safety.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority and the Nova Scotia Nurses Union put out a progress report in 2018 that included violence risk assessments and plans for all 25 emergency departments across the province. As well, staff in higher-risk environments were given communication devices they can use to alert co-workers that they're in trouble.

The progress report, called Improving Workplace Safety in Nova Scotia’s Community Emergency Departments, came out of a task force struck in 2016 in the wake of an incident in which a man brought a rifle into the emergency room of a Middleton hospital.

Health Minister Randy Delorey said the number of nurses who report feeling unsafe is concerning. - File
Health Minister Randy Delorey said the number of nurses who report feeling unsafe is concerning. - File

Delorey also referred to a five-year workplace safety action plan for the health and community services sectors, which has put forward 21 recommendations to reduce workplace violence and injuries.

“That includes work with support of employers and sector representatives in the unions including the NSGEU and the NSNU,” he said.

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union has also raised the alarm on job safety in recent years. While weapons incidents like the one in Middleton are rare, NSNU President Janet Hazelton has said physical violence such as hitting and pushing regularly occurs, and there have been more extreme acts such as patients smashing a nurse’s head against the wall.

In the legislature Thursday, opposition leaders grilled Premier Stephen McNeil on the survey results.

“That is a problem, that is a terrible indictment of the employer, and the employer is the premier of this province and this government,” said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston. “What is the plan to make sure that nurses can go to work, feel safe and only have to worry about getting the job done?”

McNeil responded that the government has always taken nurses’ concerns seriously.

“We’ll continue to do so,” the premier said, noting the government had just received the survey. “We’ll continue to look at the (survey responses), we’ll work with their organization and partners to continue to respond to the concerns they have.”

NDP Leader Gary Burrill noted the NSGEU has invited the premier to job-shadow nurses to see first-hand the challenges they face.

“I think he should take them up on it,” Burrill said. “Will he?”

The premier didn’t respond directly to the question but said he thanked the nurses who “day-in, day-out provide support to our families.”

Other survey results:

  • 84 per cent of respondents say they have experienced physical or verbal threats or acts of abuse/violence by patients/residents/family members while at work over the past five years
  • 35 per cent have sustained injuries at work over that same period of time.
  • 92 per cent say in the past five years, their workload has increased
  • 82 per cent say their employer’s decision to change the way they interpret overtime language in their collective agreement has actually increased their workload further and 77 per cent said overtime language interpretation has increased short-staffing
  • 85 per cent of respondents say their unit is short-staffed at least once per week

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