The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) has joined the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) in taking Headwaters Healthcare to the provincial labour board for failing to protect workers against COVID-19.
The unions say Headwaters failed to take reasonable safety precautions and have violated numerous sections of the Ontario Health and Safety Act. They also say the Ministry of Labour has failed to call Headwaters on those violations.
“What’s going on at Headwaters is happening at almost every healthcare facility,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “Respiratory therapists, diagnostic staff, and other healthcare staff perform close patient care with COVID-19 patients but do not get the same PPE to keep them safe.”
At Headwaters, OPSEU represents healthcare workers in more than 14 different occupations. Many of the workers, such as respiratory therapists and diagnostic staff, do their work within inches of patients – close enough to share breath.
“These workers are at high risk and must have access to adequate PPE, such as N95 respirators,” said Thomas.
Thomas calls it disappointing that the health care leadership in Ontario did not absorb the lessons from the SARS outbreak of 2003. The commission set up to investigate the handling of the outbreak made note of the fact that occupational safety and the infection control systems failed to adequately protect both health care workers and patients.
Currently, the health and safety enforcement system’s PPE guidelines are based on supply shortages and assumptions that COVID-19 is contracted only through droplets and contact. This position overlooks emerging research which argues that COVID-19 is airborne as well.
“Workers have nowhere to turn to be protected,” said Thomas. “In many cases, what used to be supply shortages have translated into employers being unnecessarily stingy with critical PPE that is needed to keep healthcare workers safe.”
Thomas is also calling for Ontario’s health and safety enforcement system to be allowed to independently analyze hazards rather than hiding behind the health guidelines to the detriment of all Ontario workers.
“OPSEU will participate in this case, and will use every measure at our disposal to ensure that all workers, inside and outside of healthcare, have the safe workplaces and the PPE that they need to do their job.”