Now Or Never

Threats, abuse, sexual harassment by the public: Paramedics on the dark side of the job

A group of Peel paramedics are fighting back against abuse and harassment they've faced on the job.

Report finds that 80 per cent of Peel Region paramedics surveyed say they've been physically assaulted

Peel paramedics gathered at the scene of a 2017 shooting. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

At work, paramedic Mandy Johnston has feared for her safety, but she hasn't always felt comfortable telling her colleagues about the harassment and violence she's experienced. 

"You don't want people to make fun of you, you don't want to be judged, you don't want to be the one who just can't brush it off," said Johnston. 

Johnston is far from alone in her experiences. According to a recent report from Peel Regional Paramedic Services, 80 per cent of surveyed paramedics — 196 in all — say they have been physically assaulted by members of the public. A whopping 97.9 per cent, or 191 paramedics, reported being verbally harassed. The majority of cases went unreported to supervisors or police.

Peel Region is west and north of Toronto and includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton. 

"Because the harassment and violence [has been] something we tolerate, when we experience this stuff at work we never talk about it," said Johnston. 

But since 2018, Johnston has been on a mission to get her colleagues talking. 

'He suddenly snapped'

That year, Johnston and her partner were dispatched to assist an elderly woman who had fallen. When they arrived on scene, her son, who was intoxicated, became aggressive. 

"He suddenly snapped on us and started yelling at us, he was swearing at us," said Johnston, "He was telling us we were useless and incompetent paramedics."

"We were trying to care for his mother, all the while feeling very uncomfortable and feeling physically intimidated by him."

80 per cent of paramedics surveyed in Peel Region, in Ontario, say they have been physically assaulted by members of the public. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

Johnston and her partner decided to call a supervisor, hoping he would help de-escalate the situation and stop the man from harassing them. But that's not what happened when the supervisor arrived. According to Johnston, he told them to let the abuse "roll off their back." 

He suggested that just dealing with these things was part of the job.- Mandy Johnston, paramedic

Once Johnston and her partner had transported the patient to a nearby hospital, they confronted their supervisor.

"I said, 'You wouldn't tell me, if those things were happening at home, that I should 'shake it off,'" said Johnston, "He stopped and thought about it, his eyes went wide open and he said, 'No, I would never.'"

Two weeks after that incident, the External Violence Against Paramedics working group was born.

Starting a conversation 

Johnston, along with a group of her colleagues, set out to explore how common experiences of on-the-job violence and harassment against are. Part of that work was hearing, anonymously, from fellow paramedics. Here's what they had to say: 

  • "I have been yelled at, cornered, slapped, bit, punched in the throat."
  • "I've been witness to both male and female patients attempting to masturbate."
  • "I've entered a residence and found someone pointing a gun at me."

Johnston knows that, due to the nature of their work, paramedics will always face harassment and violence. But she's hopeful that things can change, and that future paramedics won't have to tolerate abuse. 

"I think that there will come a time where it's not so expected to deal with these things," said Johnston. 

Read the Paramedic Experiences with Workplace Violence report:

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