Nurse Fired for Speaking Out on Workplace Violence Wins Her Job Back

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An arbitration court ordered employers to give Sue McIntyre her job back after she was fired for speaking out about violence against nurses during a conference. This was after a battle of nearly two years in which she was supported by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU). In his report, arbitrator Bram Herlich pointed out that the case raised important issues around free speech and the need for protection of workers who blow the whistle on workplace violence. He stated that a person couldn’t and shouldn’t be fired for highlighting violence in the workplace.

In January 2016, McIntyre spoke at a conference for registered practical nurses, open only to members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).  She was part of a panel discussion and spoke briefly about the risk of violence against nurses, particularly in forensic psychiatric or medium secure units where patients came from prisons. The patients are mostly young and strong, with mental health issues, and the problem is made worse by understaffing. Nurses were told that “the violence is part of the work we do. Nurses are often blamed directly by the employer for the assaults that are directed at them. Or supervisors tell nurses ‘thanks for taking one for the team’. Often nurses face reprisals for reporting incidents of violence and when we demand increased security measures,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre was quoted in a media statement issued by CUPE after the conference. She was immediately concerned about possible consequences and contacted the Union to ask that her name be removed.  However, one media outlet had already published the story online, but this was also later revised to remove all reference to her. Nevertheless, McIntyre was dismissed by her employers for making “inappropriate, inaccurate and unprofessional” statements.”

In his arbitration findings, Herlich stressed that McIntyre never intended to start a media campaign in order to harm the hospital’s reputation and that her comments had addressed the broad issue of violence in the workplace. He ordered that she be reinstated without any loss of benefits or seniority.

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“Sue McIntyre is a heroine to health care workers for her courage in telling the truth about how bad it is”

“Sue McIntyre is a heroine to health care workers for her courage in telling the truth about how bad it is,” said Michael Hurley, President of OCHU. “This has a lot of significance for health-care workers across Ontario,” Hurley said. “The feeling today is that this will create a safer workplace,” he added.

Hurley emphasized that both an internal poll and a study by University of Stirling researchers revealed that hospitals were violent workplaces that often intimidated staff into staying mum about the widespread nature of this problem. The internal survey had found that 68% of direct care staff had experienced physical violence from patients in the past year and that 44% feared comeback from the employer if they reported workplace violence. Hurley believed that the government of the province should now acknowledge and support legislation, introduced by opposition parties, which would protect whistle-blowers who reported or spoke out about this problem.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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