Nova Scotia

N.S. paramedics union seeks stiffer penalties for on-the-job assaults

A 2014 study of paramedic self-reported exposure to violence found 13 recorded incidents against Nova Scotia paramedics in the previous year. Emergency Health Services says that number increased to 34 in 2018 and reached 48 last year.

Patient assaulted 2 paramedics in a hospital emergency department late last month, says union

Michael Nickerson, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers, says paramedics have to give the government time to make changes and fix some health-care problems. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The union representing Nova Scotia paramedics is calling for stricter penalties amid growing reports of violence against emergency workers.

Two paramedics were assaulted by a patient in a hospital emergency department late last month, said Michael Nickerson, business agent and president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727.

The union wasn't given many details due to patient privacy issues, but Nickerson said the incident was a serious physical assault.

"Luckily, the paramedics were fine physically," he said. "Mentally, it shook them up a little bit, but they're doing well."

More paramedics coming forward

Nickerson, who was a paramedic for nearly 20 years, said he was regularly subjected to verbal abuse on the job. But like many of his colleagues, he never reported it.

"It just wasn't something that was reported a lot," he said. "But it seems like it is being reported more today, which is great."

Nickerson said he's not sure if cases of violence against emergency workers are on the rise, or if there are simply more people coming forward and reporting.

Either way, he said the message needs to go out that assaults against paramedics are unacceptable.

"If you go to work serving the public every day, you shouldn't have to worry about being assaulted by the people that you're there to help."

A 2014 study of paramedic self-reported exposure to violence — including verbal, physical and sexual assaults — found 13 recorded incidents against Nova Scotia paramedics in the previous year.

Emergency Health Services (EHS) said that number rose to 34 in 2018 and reached 48 in 2019.

Nickerson said as a result, he has started approaching provincial politicians to ask for stronger penalties for assaults, especially those against emergency workers.

Mark Wheatley, senior manager of EHS provincial operations, said the 2014 study found most paramedics were not reporting violent incidents. EHS has spent the last few years encouraging employees to make the employer aware.

Mark Wheatley, senior manager of provincial operations with Emergency Health Services, says paramedics are trained to watch for signs of violence and given tools to avoid or get out of trouble. (Submitted by Emergency Health Services)

"There is a shift there and some of it will be accounted for by increased reporting and the other is increased events of violence towards paramedics," he said.

Wheatley said paramedics are trained to watch for signs of violence and are given techniques for avoiding and de-escalating incidents, or extricating themselves if necessary.

EHS has safety and support teams that review incidents and ensure employees are taken care of.

If EHS receives a report of violence against one of its employees, it immediately investigates to determine how to help the employee and how to prevent incidents from happening in future. If the incident appears at all criminal, police are immediately contacted, said Wheatley.

Wheatley said he's in support of tougher penalties, but noted the root cause of the violence varies and it's not always preventable.

'No reasonable excuse'

For example, a patient may be intoxicated or have head trauma or a medical condition that affects their thinking.

"At the end of the day, you're not going to be able to mitigate all of those sometimes unpredictable behaviours," said Wheatley.

Still, EHS is in full agreement with the union and its members.

"Any level of violence towards a paramedic is considered to be 100 per cent intolerable," said Wheatley. "There is no reasonable excuse for it.

"However, there are situations that are sometimes beyond a patient's control that we know doesn't have a criminal intent."

Nickerson said legislation should be able to distinguish between criminal and other violence.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 17 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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