MONTREAL -- The unions of health and social services workers are sounding the alarm and urging the Quebec government to act in the face of a major increase in the number of violent acts and workplace accidents suffered by their members.

According to data obtained by the unions from the Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS) and from the Standards, Equity, Health and Safety Committee (CNESST), acts of violence against health care workers have exploded 82 per cent over the past two years.

In the same vein, injuries related to falls jumped by 45 per cent and those related to musculoskeletal disorders increased by 36 per cent.

"It's like we have the impression that health and social services personnel are robots. That we cannot get sick. That it cannot happen because we treat and treat, but no! The numbers prove it," said Claire Montour, president of the Quebec Federation of Health, affiliated with the Centrale des Syndicats du Quebec (FSQ-CSQ).

The National Inter-Union Health and Safety Prevention Committee, which brings together seven labour organizations, is calling on Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity Jean Boulet, Danielle McCann, Minister of Health and Social Services, and CNESST to "assume their responsibilities" and that they "intervene at the highest levels that the current crisis commands."

Montour said that the unions have long called for the health network to be included in the list of priority sectors in the application of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

"They're not listening to us, they are not treating this as seriously as they should," lamented Montour, who is trained as a nurse.

According to Montour, the unions have chosen to take action now because Minister Boulet is preparing to file an amendment to the law and that the opportunity would be ideal.

"When it is a priority in the law, institutions must have a prevention program," said Montour. "It can relate to adaptation, layout, organization of work, equipment, materials, contaminants. This is what reduces the number of accidents at work. One thing that is certain is that there are people at the end of it. These are people who are suffering."

A vicious circle of distress

In the context of labour shortages in the Quebec network, these accidents and aggression put additional weight on services. The workplace injuries resulted in a 34 per cent increase in hours of absence for health reasons in all public facilities.

In 2018, 4.4 million hours could not be worked by healthcare workers because of an accident at work. This represents 2,400 full-time positions.

In addition, beyond the physical health of network workers, it is their mental health that is undermined by the crisis situation they face. In 2017-2018, 39 per cent of salary insurance benefit files were supported by a mental health diagnosis.

"Everyone notices the damage in their daily lives. We find it amazing to be told: 'the healthcare network is expensive. We must look into it. We cannot invest unlimited dollars.' Yes, but let's correct this aspect already and we will all win," said Montour.

The National Inter-Union Health and Safety Prevention Committee brings together the Alliance of Professional and Technical Personnel in Health and Social Services (APTS), the Quebec Federation of Health (FSQ-CSQ), the Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN), the Federation of Professionals (FP-CSN), the Interprofessional Federation of Quebec Health (FIQ), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE-FTQ) and the Quebec Union of Employees of service (SQEES-FTQ).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2019.