Southlake Regional Health Centre pleaded guilty today to two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act related to the violent attack of a nurse and security guard in its emergency department in January 2019.
The Newmarket hospital will pay fines totalling $100,000; $80,000 in provincial offences and a required 25-per-cent victim fine surcharge.
The decision was met with dismay by Ontario Nurses Association president Vicki McKenna, who said "the plea deal" does not provide a deterrent to employers, and that the fine is "a drop in the bucket."
"The best word to describe it is we're outraged," she said. "These kinds of decisions that come down have nurses and health-care workers feeling like they're expendable."
"We were hoping for a very big deterrent for this employer, and others in health care, that if you don't protect your workers, there will be penalties and you will be outed in a big way."
A 21-year-old Toronto man was charged with assault and assault causing bodily harm following the incident that occurred in the emergency department and adult inpatient mental health unit, leaving the registered nurse with critical head injuries and the security guard also injured. The nurse has yet to be able to return to full-time work, McKenna said.
"The prevalence of violence in the health sector has been growing and it's totally unacceptable. This particular incident is not the first incident at Southlake, it's the first one that went to the wall, to the courts. And subsequent to this particular incident, there have been more incidents of violence that have occurred there," McKenna said.
In a statement posted on the hospital website today, Southlake president and CEO Arden Krystal said violent incidents "are incredibly rare."
"But even one incident is one too many and what happened in January 2019 had a significant impact for everyone at Southlake, particularly the two staff members who were assaulted. That’s why, in consultation with our staff, our union partners and our Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, we developed and are continuing to implement a comprehensive violence prevention strategy to create the safest possible environment for everyone at Southlake," she said.
Southlake had faced a total of nine charges, as well as fines up to $1.5 million for each charge, which alleged seven violations related to taking every precaution reasonable to protect a worker, and two counts of providing information, instruction and supervision to workers to protect their health or safety, according to the Labour Ministry.
Southlake pleaded guilty to one charge regarding the process for communication between staff in the unit and one charge regarding the entry and exit points to a common area in the unit. The other seven charges were dropped.
Since the incident occurred, Southlake has opened an emergent mental health assessment unit, which addresses the concerns raised in the investigation of the 2019 incident, Krystal said.
Other actions Southlake has initiated to increase safety, according to Krystal, include:
- Increasing security guard coverage;
- Implementing recommendations from a comprehensive external review by an organization with expertise in the area of violence prevention in hospitals;
- Launching violence prevention and intervention training for all staff to help reduce the risk of harm when treating potentially aggressive patients;
- Hiring a dedicated workplace violence prevention and safety officer to work full time with frontline staff and managers.
- Preparing to launch the first Ontario emergency department ambassador program for proactive de-escalation and partnership between the clinical and security teams;
- Reinforcing awareness of our whistleblower policy where staff can anonymously report concerns.
However, McKenna said the nurses at Southlake continue to have concerns regarding their safety despite the ongoing work on the issue.
"There are good plans on paper but the action that goes out to actually make a difference, that's the piece that's missing. The nurses there don't have the confidence that everything is being done that is reasonable," she said. "They assure me that violent incidents are not rare. They feel vulnerable, they don't feel safe in some situations. It's a very, very difficult situation."
She acknowledged training has occurred, "but it hasn't been completed."
"We don't often end up in the courts," she added. "Why do we have to fight tooth and nail? This doesn't happen if you step up to the plate."
"Going forward, Southlake will continue to work collaboratively with our union partners. We remain focused on our collective objective of minimizing the risk of violence in our hospital. By taking a constructive approach and working together in partnership, we have made significant progress together and I am confident that this will continue," Krystal said.