For most Ontarians, violence in the workplace is not an issue that would come immediately to mind when they think about the province’s public schools. But for far too many OSSTF/FEESO members, a persistent, looming risk of violence has become a prominent feature of their working lives. Violent incidents, both minor and serious, are daily occurrences in Ontario schools, and many OSSTF/FEESO Bargaining Units report that violence at work has become the most important issue facing their members.
In an Education Forum feature last winter, Vanessa Woodacre (District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge) explored the experiences of OSSTF/FEESO educational assistants, and the measures they have to take daily in an effort to prevent injury from violent incidents in the classroom. As the article pointed out, “Hitting, spitting, kicking, hair pulling, biting, scratching, profanities, death threats and exposure to feces and urine are just some of the incidents of workplace violence EAs experience on a daily basis.” That article clearly resonated with thousands of OSSTF/FEESO members. To this day it remains, by a wide margin, the most-viewed, most widely-shared on social media, and most commented-upon article since Education Forum began its online presence in 2015. (education-forum.ca)
It is not a stretch to say that workplace violence is nearing a crisis point in Ontario schools. WSIB statistics tell us that education workers have one of the highest rates of lost time injuries in the province. While it’s an issue that affects all education workers, it is particularly poignant for educational assistants, who are, more often than not, assigned specifically to support students who exhibit violent behaviour. Even though EAs do what they can to protect themselves, including the use of personal protective equipment that, in many cases, would make a football player look under-dressed, far too many of them sustain injuries that range from relatively minor cuts and scratches to broken bones or concussions that can keep them off work for months and seriously impact their lives on a number of levels, not just in the workplace.
We already know that part of the problem is a lack of appropriate funding and staffing for special education programs. But we also realize that this is a complex issue impacted by a number of factors, and that is why the work that will be undertaken by OSSTF/FEESO’s Violence in the Workplace Task Force over the next several weeks is such an important step toward the prevention of violent incidents in the future. With the help of extensive input gathered from local leaders, Health and Safety Officers and front-line workers, the task force will develop a multi-faceted approach to address both the root causes of workplace violence and its short- and long-term effects.
The Violence in the Workplace Task Force represents an important commitment on the part of OSSTF/FEESO to protect members from preventable injury due to workplace violence.