Is getting punched part of your job? Campaign hopes to curb violence against paramedics

·6 min read

In November 2019, Mandy Johnston sat at a small desk in the centre of the Region of Peel’s council chambers.

Directly in front of her, a monitor displayed the words ‘external violence’ in a chunky blue font. Sitting to Johnston’s immediate right was Peel Paramedic Chief Peter Dundas.

When Johnston spoke, she shared the concerns, fears, and disturbing stories from paramedics throughout Peel and beyond. Her words resonated with scores of her colleagues who filled the council chamber behind her, dressed in their black uniforms with reflective sleeves.

Johnston’s presentation was as shocking to councillors as it was familiar to her peers. The research she completed with her colleague, Justin Mausz, illustrated a disturbing level of violence, verbal obscenities and harassment directed at paramedics on a daily basis.

The study, which polled 196 paramedics, found 80 percent experienced physical violence at work. According to the research, 97.9 percent of paramedics in Peel were exposed to verbal abuse, 86.1 percent faced intimidation, 61.5 percent experienced sexual harassment and 14 percent had been sexually assaulted.

Those who answered questions in 2019 described a workplace culture of quiet acceptance — management was oblivious, uninterested, or both. One unnamed paramedic said, after being seen crying in the back of an ambulance, two supervisors said to look for a new job. “Look at yourself, you’re a mess,” they are quoted as saying.

After completing her research, Johnston resolved to fix a broken system.

The ongoing pandemic, which has hit Peel harder than any other region in Ontario, has only heightened the pressure paramedics are under. These first responders are the glue that keeps the healthcare system together, and now more than ever, they need to know the already challenging work environment won’t be made even more difficult by abusive behaviour from the public, including violence and sexual assault.

The next step to ensure a more healthy work environment could have gone one of two ways: a power struggle with out-of-touch leadership or a commitment from the organization to change. Chief Dundas decided to sit beside Johnston as she shared her harrowing findings in 2019 and, in 2021, the organization continues to stand by her side.

In February, Peel Paramedics introduced a violence policy to its staff and brought online a reporting system that allows paramedics to record incidents they experience directly into the system. Johnston estimates 120 reports were filed in the two months since it was launched.

The new reporting tool allows violent occurrences to be documented in the same software used to track patient calls. It will create a more accurate picture of how pervasive these incidents are in Peel. The data will be collected and analyzed internally every quarter, with plans for findings to be published in the next year.

Peel Paramedics also unveiled a public awareness campaign to highlight the violence they face. “Most people, even regional employees, paramedic families, friends and the public, are very unaware of what it is we experience at work,” Johnston told The Pointer.

The new campaign aims to change that with a frank discussion. A series of questions are being posed in bright graphics across social media to show just how poor the treatment of paramedics can be.

“Paramedics really have believed for a long time that it is a part of the job and we need to tolerate it,” Johnston previously said. “And it was only really recently, with a mental health push in paramedicine, that people started really standing back and evaluating the job and what it is about the job that causes problems.”

In the past, the organization’s old attitude, telling paramedics to grin and bear it, was perceived to go right to the top. Johnston’s original 2019 report included quotes from various paramedics who felt nothing could change. Even the participation in her survey – roughly one third – suggested many had admitted defeat.

Less than two years on, there is a sense things are turning a corner.

“You call us for help, you don’t call on us for paramedics to show up and be assaulted physically or verbally,” Chief Dundas told The Pointer, voicing his support for the campaign. “Paramedics are pretty thick-skinned, but they need to be respected for what they’re doing out there.”

Raising awareness of the issue within the organization, Johnston says, has allowed many more paramedics to step forward. Seeing leadership put its name and wallet behind a campaign that calls out the verbal abuse or physical violence they experience on the job is key.

“It’s your family speaking up for you,” Johnston said. “That’s really powerful.”

For years, the issue of violence and harassment was hardly talked about outside tight-knit paramedic circles. Management weren’t involved in the issue, there were few routes to confront the problem and many chose not to share the burden verbally at home. Testimony in Johnston’s 2019 report even points to the ineffectiveness of police on the issue.

“Having my ass slapped by a patient twice while police are standing there and doing absolutely nothing about it is extremely degrading,” one paramedic wrote in the report.

Airing the discussion has helped to bring something of a solution. Instead of standing idly by while a paramedic is assaulted by a drunk or distressed patient, police are being trained to be proactive and protect their colleagues.

“We’ve done a lot of work with Peel Police, they’ve been very generous and allowed us a lot of time and discussions with their training department,” Johnston explained. “We’ve been really working with them to understand each other’s roles and responsibility on calls and how to better interact on calls.”

With the support of Peel Regional Council, paramedics are also advocating to the provincial and federal governments for legislative changes that would criminalize assaults on emergency response personnel in the same way the Criminal Code has specific laws against assaulting police officers.

Johnston says legislative change is important, but changing internal culture and public behaviour is the key.

“I think we’ve come a long way on that culture change, especially just in a two year period since we started the external violence program,” she said. “I have seen and heard from a lot of paramedics, especially over the last 12 months, that they have felt really supported by management when they experience harassment or violence.”

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer