'Whistleblower' bill aims to improve health care worker safety

Bill could make it easier for workers to speak out without fear of reprisal

'Whistleblower' bill aims to improve health care worker safety

With violence towards health care workers on the rise, one Ontario MP is looking to introduce a parliamentary bill that would make it easier for health care workers to speak out on violence and harassment at work.

Bill 68 – or the Speaking Out About Workplace Violence and Workplace Harassment Act, 2021 – also known as the “whistleblower bill”, is gaining traction among unions and other health care activists as a means to address this worrying trend.

“You can’t address the problem if you can’t talk about it,” says Michael Hurley, President of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

That is why this bill is so important, he says, adding that the level of violence going on needs to be reported. "But people are prevented from telling the truth about it, because if they do they often get punished for it," he says. "And we need to be able to speak about it, so that we can address it.”

During his time with the union, Hurley has noticed a rise in reports of violence towards health care workers. “Increasingly, in the consultations we were doing with members, we were getting reports of significant amounts of violence.”

The union did a number of studies to try to drill down into the extent of the causes and consequences of the problem. These results were eventually made public. However, Hurley says that one of the nurses who had been on the panel was quoted in a media release saying that there was a widespread problem with violence in health care. “Her hospital fired her the next week, saying that she had brought them into disrepute by suggesting that there was a problem at that particular hospital, when in fact she was trying to draw attention to a provincial problem.”

The union eventually helped the nurse get her job back, but it took two years and the hospital “fought tooth and nail" to contest the case. "This is not something that hospitals want people talking about,” says Hurley.

He says that a number of people who have been outspoken have suffered from reprisal, so “that’s really the genesis of our support for the whistleblowing legislation". Hurley says that this new bill would make it clearly an offense to reprise against someone raising concerns, including publicly, about violence in a work environment.

“I think this is really important. I’ve worked with three activists who’ve been fired over the course of our work on violence. They were union leaders fired because they spoke up about violence – that was my perception.”

The bill, he says, would make it an offense to reprise in that way.

So far, the bill has not gained much cross-bench support. France Gélinas, the NDP MP who introduced the bill, introduced it as a private member’s bill. “I don’t believe that the government supports it, [but] we’re going to keep pushing it, talking about it,” says Hurley. “We’re trying to continually find ways to talk about the problem to try and get it fixed.”

The federal government amended the Canadian Criminal Code at the end of 2021 to significantly toughen penalties for violence against health care workers. But Hurley says that is took decades of lobbying to achieve that, and he anticipates that it will also take a long time to push this new bill provincially.

Hurley points to staffing shortages as one of the reasons for this rise in workplace violence in the health care sector. He says that staffing cuts over the last few decades have had huge impacts on the health care sector – notably on quality of care. Fewer nurses or doctors around means that health care is effectively being doled out, almost rationed. And this is a problem which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“And people wait longer for care, and despite everyone’s best efforts the quality of care is not as good as it should be. And the level of frustration people have intensifies under those conditions.”

Violence and harassment is particularly an issue for female or racialized workers.

“We did a poll of the nurses we represent [registered practical nurses]. 30 per cent of them report they’ve been sexually assaulted over their working career at work. In terms of Indigenous and racialized workers, 87 per cent report being the subject of racist aggression, verbal aggression and physical violence at work. What you’ve got is a toxic environment, which is dangerous.

When you have a society which is permissive of violence against women and you’ve got a predominantly female workforce – which is also largely racialized across the health care sector – people express this anger and there are no social controls around it,” says Hurley.