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As a 42-year nursing veteran of Ontario’s hospital system, Linda Clayborne is no stranger to what’s become a growing phenomenon — escalating incidents of violence perpetrated by patients and even family members against front-line health-care staff.

“I’ve been kicked, spat on, bit, pushed and had verbal abuse,” said Clayborne, who retired in June 2016 from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton and now works part-time doing private nursing.

“Violence is really a daily occurrence at the hospital,” said Clayborne, who spent much of career working as a forensic psychiatric nurse.

But she said it’s a scenario played out in hospitals across the province and throughout Canada, with nurses, personal support workers and other staff bearing the brunt of patients’ emotional meltdowns.

A new survey of almost 2,000 health-care workers being released on Monday by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) bears out that contention.

Almost 70 per cent of respondents reported experiencing at least one incident of physical violence in the past year, while 20 per cent said they had been subjected to such assaults nine or more times during that period.

Eighty-three per cent said they had endured at least one incident of non-physical abuse, such as name-calling, threatening gestures or intimidation, with 35 per cent reporting at least nine such occurrences in the last year.

Sexual harassment or assault also occurred, with 42 per cent of workers reporting at least one incident, and six per cent saying it happened nine times or more.

OCHU president Michael Hurley called the findings “staggering.”

And it isn’t only front-line staff like nurses and personal support workers who are being subjected to physical and verbal attacks, he said. “The rate of assault against clerical staff, against cleaners, against dietary aides would be in the neighbourhood of about 34 per cent.”

Hurley said violence by patients and family members can occur in virtually any part of a hospital, from the emergency department to the intensive care unit to obstetrics.

“They may be people with mental illness, people high on opiates, people distressed about the quality of their care, or distressed about the length of time they’ve waited — and they take that aggression out on the health-care staff that they meet.”

He cited the recent case of a mentally ill man who had come to a Smiths Falls, Ont., hospital and grabbed a pair of blunt scissors off the admitting clerk’s desk and “plunged them” into her neck.

“Had she had a Plexiglas barrier completely around her, that couldn’t have happened,” said Hurley, adding that budget restraints often mean hospitals aren’t making even such minimal investments to protect staff.

Another factor is that the health-care sector is female-dominant — 85 per cent of staff are women — and societal attitudes are reflected within hospitals’ walls, Hurley suggested.

“You’ve got in Canadian society, unfortunately, a very high degree of tolerance for violence against women,” he said.

“So you’ve got this general societal attitude and it doesn’t stop at the door of the hospital. It comes right in and it’s compounded by the fact that if you assault someone in a hospital, you may not face charges.”

Clayborne said violent incidents began rising about 15 years ago, in lockstep with ongoing staff cuts that left front-line workers to deal with unruly patients, where once trained crisis teams were there to respond.