OHS changes needed in light of workplace assault

It was with great dismay that I read about the assault of a 60-year-old female staff member at the Elk Island Child and Youth Ranch on Feb. 4.

Obviously, no one wants to hear about a 60-year-old woman being assaulted, but the circumstances surrounding the assault are even more alarming.

For one, it was reported that while the assault occurred at around 11 p.m., police and EMS did not respond to the ranch until 1:15 a.m. Police said there was a delay in finding out the assault had taken place. It’s hard to say who can be faulted for this. It’s a miracle the woman survived the assault and that staff found her when they did.

But this raises some questions. Was the woman working alone? From the reports I’ve read that has not been explicitly stated, but it appears to be the case. If that is true, why was a woman working alone in a facility that deals with youth with past histories of trauma and abuse? Or to put it more frankly, in what is essentially a hazardous workplace?

According to Catherine Hedlin, president of the Child and Youth Care Association of Alberta, it’s common for caretakers to be working alone in facilities at night. Apart from the fact that late night hours are inherently more dangerous, one must also take into consideration that the people working late hours are often society’s most vulnerable: the elderly, single mothers and immigrants.

As a child, my dad owned a convenience years for some 10 years. In that time, I know he was held up at gunpoint at least once. I never took a moment to think that every time my father went to work, to put food on the table for my family, he was putting his life at risk.

But he did, and that’s exactly what thousands of workers nationwide do every night when they go to work.

So it’s encouraging to see Hedlin advocating for provincial legislation that would require child and youth care counsellors to be under regulation of the Health Professions Act. 

I’m also reassured to see that Occupational Health and Safety is investigating the incident at the ranch, and to see Labour Minister Christina Gray highlighting the incident as one of major concern. Hopefully the investigation leads to recommendations that result in real policy change.

The safety of workers working late hours is critical not just for the workers themselves, but in a residential type program such as this one, for the people they oversee. It simply doesn’t make sense to have one staff member for an emergency situation.

But that’s the case at many residential programs that operate on provincial funding, because there’s not enough money to go around.

The province has a responsibility to ensure people feel safe going to work and that there is adequate oversight and safeguards to ensure their well being. This can’t be possible in every situation, especially in private enterprises, like a convenience store.

But at the very least, the province must ensure that the facilities it funds have enough resources and staff to operate they way they’re meant to without putting anyone’s life at risk. 

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