Victory in Grande Prairie case will help nurses refuse unsafe work

Nurses at Grande Prairie’s Queen Elizabeth II Hospital have achieved a significant victory for workplace safety in Alberta’s health care system.

Represented by United Nurses of Alberta, eight Registered Nurses and Registered Psychiatric Nurses won an important appeal to the Occupational Health and Safety Council that protects the right of health care workers to refuse to work in situations where they are placed in imminent danger. 

On the night of Jan. 17, 2011, the nurses informed their manager they would not treat a violent patient who had threatened violence against hospital staff in the past. The patient, admitted to the hospital’s psychiatric unit after returning from lockup at the local RCMP station, was being held in a seclusion room the nurses believed to be insecure. When able-bodied security staff had to take physical control of the patient, some security staff suffered injuries. Following the incident, one security guard was placed on modified duties by the Worker’s Compensation Board.

For failing to treat the patient and place themselves in imminent danger, the nurses were suspended without pay.
Following the incident, the employer was obligated by law to produce a written investigation and report of employee complaints. The employer failed to do so, hampering the nurses’ ability to report the incident to a provincial OH&S inspector.

Appealing to the provincial OH&S Council, the UNA nurses argued they had reasonable grounds to believe they faced imminent danger and the employer did not meet its responsibility under the OH&S Act.

After considering the evidence, Appeal Panel Chair Peter Schaefer ordered the employer to cease all disciplinary action against the nurses, pay them what they would have earned if they had not been disciplined, and remove any reprimand or other reference to the matter from their employment record.

During the recent strike by Alberta Correctional Officers, nurses working at the Edmonton Remand Centre invoked their right to refuse to be placed in imminent danger. In this case, Alberta Health Services co-operated to ensure no nurse would be exposed to harm during the strike.