The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has launched a campaign calling for specialized self-defence training for mental health caregivers.
“The reality is, without self-defence training, caregivers are at greater risk of becoming seriously hurt, or even killed, in the event of an attack,” said OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “We are talking about potentially saving lives here.”
The call to action stems from recent incidents that have occurred at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishine, Ont. There have been at least four serious assaults on staff since April, including a worker who was stabbed in the back with a screwdriver and sustained multiple injuries.
Waypoint includes a maximum security forensic division that is home to patients who have been found not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial by the courts. Workers say patient-on-staff attacks at the facility are becoming more frequent and more severe; however, workers are not adequately trained to defend themselves.
“The kind of training we receive now is useless if you ask me,” said Local 329 president Pete Sheehan. “We are supposed to use CPI (crisis prevention and intervention) which teaches you therapeutic holds for when a patient becomes violent. But what happens when things escalate? Are we supposed to just sit there and get beaten to a pulp? We need proper training that will teach us how protect ourselves in the event of an attack.”
CPI does not acknowledge the fact that, on many occasions, staff at places like Waypoint have to do takedowns and restrain a patient during an assault on another staff member or patient, said Terri Aversa, senior OPSEU health and safety officer.
“In these cases, even defending-against-assault-on-your-own-person training is not sufficient. Staff must be trained how to intervene to protect others,” she said.
Staff also must use force because patients out right refuse to comply with direction (such as take court ordered medication), and the patients may need to be moved to other locations.
“The nature of current training at Waypoint does not address the fact that the clients may be, at times, the highest risk group in the province who have previously committed serious acts of violence,” she said.
OPSEU has submitted a series of recommendations, including specialized self-defence training, to Ontario’s Minister of Labour and the Minister of Long-Term Care.
According to Aversa, the training should include physical intervention concepts and defending against strikes, kicks, bites, grabs, hair pulls, chokes and what to do if faced with a weapon. The training should also include specialized safe holds and techniques when using a forcible chemical restraint (such as court ordered medication).
Waypoint did not respond to an interview request from COS, but according to a statement on its website, the organization met with the Ministry of Labour at the end of June to discuss health and safety and the union’s recommendations.
“We are currently working through each item presented to respond with what we have in place, research best practices and determine where enhancements applicable to Waypoint should be considered,” the statement said.
Thomas, who has worked in the mental health-care field for most of his life, says workers need to protect themselves.
“It saddens me to hear about the increasing number of assaults perpetrated against caregivers these days,” he said. “Mental health workers are among our most vulnerable health-care workers and they deserve better tools to keep them safe.”
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 issue of COS.