03/03/2015 10:11 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

Nurse attacks: are bruises and black eyes the new face of B.C. health care?

The weekend attack on a nurse at Abbotsford Hospital, recently fined $75,000 for failing to protect workers from violence, is the latest in a string of assaults on B.C. nurses and doctors that many say should be tackled differently.

"It is a blatant lack of compliance, that's a big part of the problem," said David Durning, Senior Labour Relations Officer with the Health Sciences Association of B.C.

Durning points to the fact that the hospital was fined last May for three violent incidents, including a stabbing. In fact, every B.C. health authority has been penalized by WorkSafeBC after violent incidents in their facilities.

But union representatives say that process isn't working to protect employees from unpredictable and often dangerous patients — partly because it takes so long.

3722 health workers injured

Statistics from WorkSafeBC show 3722 health care workers were injured by violence at work between 2005 and 2012.

By comparison, the law enforcement sector saw only 241 workers injured over the same time period.

The most violent assaults of health care workers happen in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards.

Recent examples include the assault of a doctor in Penticton last December. In January this year, a mental health worker in Nelson was beaten unconscious by a patient who had made threats.

Workers say Interior Health did nothing to protect them.

According to WorkSafeBC, that is a violation of occupational health and safety regulations, which say employers must have a plan to deal with any patient known to present a risk to staff.

It's also the reason a $75,000 fine was levied against Vancouver Coastal Health last summer, after Pam Owen, a recreational therapist, was assaulted by a psychiatric patient.

WorkSafeBC investigators concluded management "was aware there was a real and predictable risk of injury from violence to the workers."

But the patient's history of assaulting health care workers was missing from the alert page of his chart.

Alert systems not used properly

Owen's beating was prolonged because the nearest panic alarm didn't work.

"Lack of communication and alert systems that are not working is a problem," says Durning.

He points to a recent inspection at Richmond Hospital, which showed the purple dot system, in which patients known for violence have a visible purple dot on their chart and wristbands, was not being used correctly.

"It was just totally all over the place, it wasn't consistent, to the point where nobody paid attention to them and they were not in places where they should be, and there wasn't any labelling in a particular patient's room."

Durning says that puts workers in danger.

The failure or lack of panic alarm systems has been blamed for attacks on nurses at the Kamloops' Hillside Psychiatric Hospital and the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre in Burnaby.

Code White, a CBC investigation into violent attacks on the forensic ward of the Burnaby facility, uncovered the highest staff injury rate in the province.

As part of that investigation, we examined dozens of WorkSafeBC inspection reports for hospitals over the last year and discovered a history of violations, including a repeated failure to comply with an order to install a panic alarm system.

Only after CBC published several stories did the provincial government hire security guards and invest in a panic alarm system.

Workers feel alone and scared

"Nurses need dedicated security in ER, appropriate staffing and reports must be filed immediately with WorkSafeBC and police," says B.C. Nurses' Union vice-president Christine Sorensen.

But B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake doesn't want to put more security guards in hospitals and says the province is spending tens of millions of dollars on violence prevention and de-escalation training for medical staff.

Training plans for staff are great, says Durning, but only if regulations are followed by the employer as well. He says a recent survey of his members shows workers feel alone.

"They love the work they do — despite a lack of support and fear of being assaulted at work."