Gayle Duteil: B.C. Nurses' Union has been on the front lines of harm reduction for more than 15 years

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      By Gayle Duteil

      To better understand just how dire the conditions are for nurses who are working at Insite during this provincewide opioid crisis, you just have to read a recent letter sent to the B.C. Nurses’ Union in early December.

      "Wednesday: Three overdoses occur at the same time. Thursday: Staff responds to two overdoses and a bear spray at the same time. Friday: Three overdoses occur at the same time. From November 23–November 30, there have been 139 documented emergencies at Insite, most of which were overdoses."

      The firsthand account by staff goes on to paint a dismal picture, describing nurses frantically rushing from patient to patient, attempting to stabilize one before moving on the next.

      "There are huge demands on the baseline nurses and they have little time for other nursing duties and to even adequately meet their own needs to safely provide care," it states. "Nurses are not having enough time off between shifts to recover physically, mentally, and emotionally for their next set of shifts, which compromises the care they are able to provide and increases risk to staff injury."

      As a result of the endless crisis management nurses are up against, the BCNU recently sent members a health and safety bulletin highlighting the important safety measures they need to consider when dealing with this health-care emergency. The goal was to alert nurses to certain risks that can be present in overdose situations, to remind them of avenues of redress should their workplace pose a danger, and caution them about possible violent episodes that might arise when patients react to naloxone.

      Since the bulletin was posted, the BCNU has been criticized for not doing nearly enough to support those on the front lines. However, myself, nurses, and staff who work at BCNU couldn’t disagree more with those inaccurate attacks.

      We are in constant communication with health employers around B.C. demanding that staffing levels are respected so nurses don’t have to work 16-hour shifts and run the risk of burning out. We know nurses in emergency rooms, Insite, addiction centres, and elsewhere are working around the clock during this opioid crisis and we won’t stop until they have the support and resources they deserve.

      BCNU communicates with our 45,000 members on a regular basis. During this health crisis, we have advised nurses to consider their own safety when working closely with toxic drugs like fentanyl. We have also reminded them of the services available in case they are accidentally exposed to the drug, experience a violent episode, or have workload concerns.

      Much of what BCNU does on a daily basis includes standing up for a variety of health care concerns. We are constantly putting pressure on health employers to hire more nurses in all care areas. We advocate for safe staffing and have made working conditions for nurses our main focus in the last two rounds of contract negotiations. For over a decade, we have been working with emergency departments around the province to address congestion and overload.

      I am personally appalled that violence has somehow become "part of the job" for nurses and as a result, we have been advocating for improved violence prevention programs for many years. There were substantial gains achieved in the recent collective agreement we bargained for nurses.

      We know that during this opioid crisis nurses will do whatever they can to help people in need, but it must not be at a cost of their own safety. We would never say that all overdose patients are violent, but we know there is a risk that some could be, as we’ve seen in previous incidents where nurses have been punched and attacked when working with vulnerable patients. In some cases, these nurses will never work again.

      The BCNU is a passionate supporter of Insite and we strongly believe that providing harm reduction services is a critical part of the nursing practice. In 2011, we took a high profile role at the Supreme Court of Canada, intervening in support of Insite’s legal battle against the federal Conservative government. The BCNU also provided financial support to help with the production of the movie Fix: The Story of an Addicted City, which earned critical acclaim for its focus on addiction and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

      We’ve championed harm reduction strategies for more than 15 years and will continue to urge all levels of government to fund more services to support people who wish to enter recovery and rehab programs.

      Lastly, we are well aware of the stress nurses are experiencing because we are in contact with nurses at worksites around the province on a daily basis. I attended the recent opioid crisis forum at Vancouver City Hall. We’ve toured the mobile medical unit in Vancouver and talked to the staff and support team about their experiences. This month, BCNU representatives met with the overworked nurses at Insite and will be helping them to address their needs in the midst of the daily traumas they face. I’ve also sent a letter to Health Minister Terry Lake asking that more be done to ensure front-line efforts are properly supported and continue to be in communication with Minister Lake about Insite’s immediate needs.

      We know that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve working conditions for nurses, especially as they face this horrible overdose epidemic. We know that staffing levels aren’t where they should be and that the provincial government must do more to lessen the burden on our health-care professionals. The nurses of B.C. can rest assured, however, that their elected union representatives and dedicated network of fellow nurses, employees and advocates who support them are up for the job.

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