The CFNU Logo
December 7, 2021

Silas: Let’s put an end to violence against nurses


The following opinion editorial first appeared in Toronto Star on December 6, 2021.

By Linda Silas

Last month, Ottawa introduced Bill C-3 amending the Criminal Code to recognize violence against health workers as an aggravating factor during sentencing. The legislation would also criminalize intimidating or obstructing health-care workers or patients seeking care.

Nurses’ unions welcome these new measures, which will increase the profile — and consequences — of violence against health-care workers.

Indeed, most people would be surprised to learn that nursing is among the professions with the highest risk of physical assault and injury.

The facts are shocking. More than 92 per cent of nurses reported exposure to physical assault at work, according to a study of more than 7,000 Canadian nurses. Nearly half of these nurses reported exposure to physical violence on 11 or more occasions.

The same study demonstrated the mental stress of the job. Nearly 1-in-4 nurses reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a rate much higher than the general population.

And that was before the pandemic.

Violence should never be part of the job, but for nurses it is often treated that way by employers. Nurses are routinely discouraged from reporting violent incidents and expected to defuse risky situations themselves. They may even fear consequences for reporting assault.

Why do we routinely accept violence against health care workers? The answer, at least in part, is systemic sexism.

More than 90 per cent of nurses are women and, as with other so-called “caring” jobs, wages and working conditions are often worse than in comparable male-dominated professions.

Not only does systemic sexism undervalue the work of nurses, it makes the violence they experience invisible. The situation is even worse for racialized, immigrant and refugee nurses.

Nurses often have to fight to receive the same legal protections and benefits as male-dominated professions — despite facing equally alarming rates of violence and PTSD.

In recent years, several provinces granted presumptive access to compensation for workers in designated jobs who are diagnosed with PTSD. Such legislation often targets male-dominated fields like policing and firefighting, while excluding the female-dominated nursing profession.

After intensive lobbying by nurses’ unions, this is starting to change.

Given the normalization of violence against health care workers, addressing it is a complex task. Canada’s parliamentary health committee tackled this challenge for the first time in 2019, producing a report and a series of recommendations.

Federal Bill C-3 acts on one of the committee’s recommendations and finally considers nurses among other high-risk workers, including police officers and transit workers.

Nurses hope the federal government will enact the other health committee recommendations, including addressing the staffing shortage that puts front-line health workers at greater risk.

With this new law, Canada is finally on the way to putting an end to violence in health care — and the culture of acceptance that surrounds it. Creating safer health care settings for workers will also benefit the patients, residents and clients they care for.


Linda Silas is a nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.