Short staffing could leave workers exposed to danger, union official says

Nurses worry about hospital safety


Iqaluit nurses fear the danger, stress and daily grind of their poorly-paid jobs will follow them to the Qikiqtani Regional Hospital, when it opens Oct. 19.

If it does, many nurses will leave for other jobs, warns Cheryl Young, an Inuk from Labrador, who is the head of the nurses' local in Iqaluit.

Young has worked as a nurse in the North for 24 years, and in Iqaluit for the past three years, where she's seen her fellow nurses pummeled, threatened, pushed, bitten and spat on.

One of the scariest incidents she witnessed in the hospital involved an adolescent girl on a rampage.

"A nurse was bitten, a chunk taken out of her. I came out and pinned this person on to the floor," Young said.

Another time, an agitated man tore apart the emergency department, resisted the efforts of five RCMP officers who were called to restrain him and sent nurses running away from the department.

"We're also seeing verbal violence, like ‘I'll get you when you get out of the hospital,'" Young said.

Despite the potentially explosive conditions, nurses are occasionally left alone at night to staff the emergency department. This happened four times this summer.

Security guards are on duty in the hospital, but they keep an eye mainly on the building, Young said. With regular tours of the building and breaks, the guard may only be at his desk for 10 minutes an hour, she said.

Young is concerned because in the new hospital emergency nurses will be responsible for nine patients, instead of three. Plans call for an increase of two to three nurses on the daytime shift in emergency, but Young said "we don't have the staff. "

Nurses are already upset by the amount of overtime they do. They also resent the extra duties they're asked to do while they're on the job. These could involve preparing blood for laboratory tests, or in the case of an Inuk nurse, being asked to translate for patients instead of treating them.

As for security in the new hospital, cameras will allow visual surveillance between departments.

"But what about when we're in the rooms dealing with patients? If I'm down at one end of the emergency room dealing with a trauma patient, and I'm on the night shift, and they're only two of us, and she's down on the other end being raped, who's going to come and help me?"

Nurses also worry their working conditions will continue to endanger patients' health and welfare. Young said patients are also at risk of being the victims of violence, because a drunk may be in one bed, while the next may hold a woman with a baby: "that's a very common scenario."

Young said the hospital has to start enforcing its policy on zero tolerance for violence.

"Bottom line, assault is assault. It's not in my job description. You can't put yourself in a position of being injured because you've got to force treatment on someone who clearly doesn't want it when they trying to bite you, punch you and spit on you," Young said.

Young says the growing level of violence may lead to a mass departure of burned-out nurses from the new $40-million hospital, and the deterioration of health services in the Baffin region. One nurse who left this month, said handed in her resignation to "stop feeling like a victim of this poorly-run system."

"Moving the problem doesn't fix it. All you've done is move it a new place," Young said. "Take a look at Davis Inlet in Labrador. They moved Davis Inlet to a new community because of hygiene reasons. The new Davis Inlet is in as poor condition as it ever was."

A visit to the Baffin Regional Hospital's public restrooms, where toilets are sometimes overflowing with used paper and stools, shows the current level of poor hygiene and low morale even among maintenance staff, Young said.

"The departments are falling apart. No one cares anymore," she said. "The problems will continue because you're moving the same people over there, and you haven't changed the working conditions."

Nurses also want pay equity because they say they are underpaid compared to other jobs requiring less specialized education. This disparity caused one nurse, trained in at Nunavut Arctic College nursing program, to decide to leave her job at the Baffin Regional Hospital for a better-paid job at the Government of Nunavut.

Over the summer, Young prepared a detailed proposal on how the GN could improve the working conditions for nurses in Nunavut.

The plan includes more measures to boost on-the-job safety, extra money to cover the mentoring inexperienced new nurses to the territory, a pay raise to bring Nunavut nurses' pay on par with other Canadian jurisdictions and other benefits to encourage nurses to live and work in Nunavut.

Young sent these to Alex Campbell, the deputy minister of the GN's health department in early September. Campbell responded that the list of improvements were contractual issues which he couldn't deal with.

The Nunavut Employees Union is in negotiations for a new collective agreement, which will also apply to nurses in the territory.

Lloyd Searcy, the executive director of Iqaluit health services, said he's aware of the nurses' concerns. He's hopeful the new collective agreement will settle some demands- he said he's working to address issues related to security and staffing.

With respect to security, Searcy said the hospital has a new restraint policy for people who are violent and will train staff on how to use restraints.

Searcy holds short-staffing to be responsible for the current low morale and discontent among nurses.

"Whenever you're short-staffed and whenever you're bringing in agency or casual nurses, it's not the optimum environment," he said. "There has to be understanding on both sides."

The new Qikiqtani Hospital will be "dramatic improvement" for patients and staff, Searcy promised.

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