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Nova Scotia to beef up safety in 'very stressful' hospital emergency rooms

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia nurse Jamie Stewart says he's been verbally abused and even threatened on the job — and in one recent incident, his hospital went into partial lockdown.

"It's a very stressful environment. There are not many protocols, and if there are protocols, they're not well known to (staff)," said Stewart, who works at Queen's General Hospital in Liverpool, N.S., and has been a registered nurse for 23 years.

Stewart said he's encouraged by measures announced Friday by the provincial government to reduce violence at emergency departments across the province.

A report from a working group — which included officials from government, the nurses' union, the Nova Scotia Health Authority and police — makes 12 recommendations to improve safety, including that all emergency departments undergo risk assessments to determine how best to bolster security and operations.

Other recommendations include developing a data management system for reporting incidents, better education for staff, and providing staff with devices allowing them to call for assistance.

"We'll be working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority over the coming months to implement the changes to make sure that the emergency rooms that all of us as individual families rely on at, quite frankly, our most vulnerable time, are safe for our families and for those working in them," Premier Stephen McNeil said at a news conference, adding that all of the report's recommendations will be implemented within a year.

The report was prompted by an incident last October at Middleton's Soldiers Memorial Hospital, when an armed man reportedly walked into the emergency room.

It was one of 61 incidents of violence and threats reported in emergency departments from January 2016 to November 2016.

But Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton said that number is likely much higher. She said nurses typically do not report such incidents, especially verbal abuse.

"I don't know when I worked in (emergency) if I would have ever written that I was verbally abused by a patient or family member," said Hazelton at a news conference in Halifax Friday. "But they're going to now so we can track it and we can see trends."

Hazelton said one reason people become violent in emergency rooms is because of wait times, calling the public's perception of emergency departments as a "McEmergency," in reference to the fast food chain McDonald's.

"Often times, for whatever reason, our public thinks it's appropriate it get angry about (wait times) and yell at nurses," said Hazelton.

"It's not OK, it's not appropriate, and it's no longer going to be tolerated. ...We're telling nurses, we're giving them permission to say, 'That's not OK. You can't speak to me that way'."

The report said workplace violence in the health-care field increased between 2013 and 2015.

The document said one third of nurses have been physically assaulted, bullied or injured at work, and double that number have experienced threats, threatening behaviour, or harassment.

McNeil said it's not yet known how much money will be needed to implement the recommendations. He said the province will have a better idea of that once the risk assessments are completed by August.

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