Over half a dozen nurses at St. Joe's have been assaulted or threatened since mid-December, the head of Ontario Nurses' Association says — and with budget cuts looming, the union fears things will get worse.

Five separate violent incidents have happened at a St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton facility since Dec. 16, some of which have included weapons and serious injuries.

"There is an ongoing issue with respect to violence towards [registered nurses] at St. Joe's," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, provincial president of the union and a Hamilton nurse.

"There is no way to provide even the current level of service — as poor as it is — with the hammer hanging over the budget."

Here are the most severe incidents that have happened in the last few weeks, Haslam-Stroud says:

  • Dec. 16: Two nurses are attacked by a patient at the West 5th campus and hospitalized. The man is arrested and charged.
  • Dec. 21: A patient who is released on a day pass from the West 5th Campus attempts to obtain a weapon but is stopped and arrested. Haslam-Stroud says he had been "threatening to kill one of the nurses who worked at St. Joe's."
  • Dec. 22: A patient at the Charlton Campus beats a nurse over the head with a leather bag. No police are called in.
  • Dec. 24: A patient at the Charlton Campus starts destroying property. Police are called, and when police learn the man's identity, tactical officers are called in to subdue him, Haslam-Stroud says. He was arrested and charged with mischief.
  • Jan. 4: A 40-year-old woman throws a cell phone at two workers at the Charlton Campus. She was charged with assault.

CBC News asked St. Joe's about the union's list of incidents, but the hospital did not reply to the specifics in its answer.

Safety 'extremely important,' St. Joe's says

In an emailed statement, Director of Public Affairs Agnes Bongers said that the "safety of our staff is extremely important to us and is a priority."

"We investigate all reports thoroughly, including working with police and labour ministry officials as appropriate, and welcome their recommendations."

Amid these violent outbursts, management at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton needs to find $26 million in cost savings to balance the hospital's $550-million budget by 2016/2017.

St. Joe's is entering a period of "extreme cost restraint" that includes a hiring freeze on new positions and "careful" consideration of sick time and overtime, according to emails from President Dr. David Higgins to staff.

Haslam-Stroud says she believes cuts are coming to registered nursing positions and ties those cuts to safety. "As they erode these positions, they are essentially putting patients and [nurses] at risk," she said.

"The reality is if you have the appropriate number of nurses there responding, you can deescalate a lot of these situations taking place."

She says that the hospital should reexamine staffing levels as well as training and education for management and staff. But considering it has taken 18 months to agree on the wording for a zero-tolerance for violence in the workplace sign, she says, the union isn't holding its breath.

"Considering they're one of the largest hospitals in Ontario, St. Joe's hasn't taken violence as seriously as they should."