Nurses are being beaten and choked during attacks from patients as they struggle with understaffing, a conference heard Wednesday.

Registered practical nurses from across Ontario are meeting in Kingston to address violence they face on the job, from beatings to being spit on, in hospitals and nursing homes.

"It's very broad and it's quite rampant," said Helen Fetterly, an RPN for more than 40 years and the secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE. "It's happening every day."

Fetterly said federal and provincial cutbacks and the shortage of beds mean patients are released earlier than they once were. 

At the same time, nurses who call in sick aren't being replaced, so there are fewer people to deal with aggressive patients, said Linda Clayborne, a forensic psychiatric nurse in Hamilton.

'When you have a patient holding onto your clothes and punching you, 54 seconds is a long time.' - Linda Clayborne

Some forensic units treat patients found not criminally responsible for violent crimes due to mental illness. The goal is rehabilitation and release.

In the last two months, violent incidents in Hamilton included attacks on two nurses who sustained concussions, Clayborne said.

Clayborne witnessed an incident last week and pressed her personal alarm to call for immediate help.

"When you have a patient holding onto your clothes and punching you, 54 seconds is a long time."

In another incident, a female RPN had hot coffee thrown in her face by a patient.

Last week, a male co-worker sustained a black eye and swelling to his cheek and eye, Clayborne said. Now his children fear for him.

In long-term care, the majority of patients are over the age of 85 with Alzheimer's, dementia and other cognitive impairments that require a higher standard of care, Fetterly said.

"Cutting back on staff is recipe for disaster," Fetterly said, because when a nurse is slow to answer a call bell, she's the "recipient of displeasure."

The Ontario groups are also calling for legislation to protect health-care workers from violence.

Earlier this week, the B.C. Nurses Union called for more mental health resources in hospital and the community, saying insufficient programs and services mean nurses struggle to provide safe patient care.

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar