Nursing - the highest sickness rate of any occupation

April 28 is first a day of mourning and remembrance. It is an opportunity to remember those who have gone before us, like our two unforgettable members who have lost their life to SARS and we also have our member who was killed on the job by a co-worker and ex-lover. But it is also an opportunity for us to recognize the fact that there are so many occupational hazards in our profession.

So we are recognizing those of us who are gone before us but also those who are ill, injured, and dying because of their profession. Nursing has the highest sickness rate of any occupation in Canada.

The most common workplace injury is what we call musculo-skeletal injuries, the repetitive strain injuries, the wrists, the shoulders, the elbows, the lower back injuries. Lower back injuries in particular are synonymous with our profession which prohibits nurses traditionally working perhaps beyond the age of 55.

The majority of nurses retire around the age of 55 because their bodies have failed them. The other concerns that we notice is exposure to pathogens, to bacteria and viruses and exposure to hazardous carcinogenic chemicals. There are also latex allergies.
There are also injuries due to needles. Ontario Nurses Association alongside with two other unions in the Needlestick alliance are trying to pressure the provincial government to mandate the use of what we call safe needles. There is such a thing as a safe needle, a needle that self-retracts for example, or with a guard on it. We are strongly suggesting that many of the injuries that occur on the job are unnecessary and unreasonable and therefore very preventable

As far as the causes are concerned, we see a lack of vision on behalf of all levels of governments and all levels of care.

It is considered that workers are a disposable item. Workers are seen as a commodity. We put in 20 or 30 good years and then it is time to say good bye because our bodies are broken. No-one sees us as whole human beings, as members of communities and of families. Injured workers are just let go They face employers who refuse to accommodate an injury because it is just not financially viable for them. Nurses feel it very strongly, because they give their lives to their profession. This is almost a vocation to many, an employment and a career of caring. This is just a paradox then to have an employer come to you and say, "Thanks, but No Thanks!"

Besides, the employers have always had some mechanism for rewarding loyalty but, when you become injured, there is nothing but punitive measures exacted against you. It is as if an injury is an act of disloyalty.

Certainly wsib seems to encourage that concept. wsib seems very reluctant to pressure employers to create safe places of work to prevent injuries and very reluctant to accommodate workers with certain restrictions back into the place of work once injuries have occurred.

The second cause is what employers call a lack of funding. Employers have short-time expenditures on injuries and short-term sicknesses. They have to pay for them immediately. If we ask them to invest that money upfront and divert some of those costs into implementing some safe workplaces, we could actually save that money within the year never mind over the 15-20 year-term.

There is also a lack of commitment and of enforcement. The Health and Safety Act, for example, is quite clear. The role of the Health and Safety Committees in workplaces is quite clear. Their mandates are clear and so is the role of inspectors and the ability to use the law to fine employers is clear but I have not yet seen a clear demonstration of their willingness to use all these portions of the legislation.

Quite clearly also the shortage of nurses has compounded an already large problem. We have not yet seen the extra nurses coming into the profession that were promised and we suspect that in the next 10 years, as another 10,000 nurses retire, the problem will be getting worse. That is creating an increase workload on the nurses and is a factor in the increasing number of injuries.

*Ontario Nurses Association

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