Long-term care facilities failed to train workers on drug risks: union

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After a furlough, Tara Fennell returned to work earlier this year as a personal support worker at a local long-term care facility, a position she has held for years.

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But shortly after her return, she made an alarming discovery.

A simple sign posted on the door of one of her residents quickly made it clear that she, and potentially thousands of other personal support workers across the city, may have been exposed without the namely to highly toxic drugs and waste, without proper training and protection, for years.

“I was very angry, and scared, and very, very, very worried,” Fennell said.

The sign on the door had informed her that the resident was taking cytotoxic drugs, a type of drug used to inhibit or prevent cellular function. Cytotoxic drugs are most often used for chemotherapy in the treatment of cancers, but they can also be used for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and certain skin conditions like psoriasis.

But while the drugs themselves can save patients’ lives, their toxicity means they must be handled with extreme caution.

This was not the case at a number of long-term care facilities in Sudbury, according to Fennell’s union, Mine Mill Local 598/Unifor.

In a statement, the union accused Greater Sudbury facilities of failing to provide staff with essential training and equipment to ensure the safe management of cytotoxic residents.

“There’s no safe level of exposure, and some of these people have been working for 20, 25 years, some of them daily,” Fennell said.

The potential harmful effects of improper handling of cytotoxic drugs and waste materials can be significant.

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Exposure can increase the likelihood of genetic mutations, potentially leading to the growth of tumors in healthy cells. Pregnant women and people trying to conceive are also at considerable risk, as exposure can lead to spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, infertility, and growth and developmental abnormalities in infants exposed in utero.

Other risks include irritation to eyes, skin, and mucous membranes, as well as nausea, headache, dizziness, and hair loss. In some cases, exposure can lead to liver disease and cancer.

Fennell said the full health implications for local workers may not be known for 10 to 15 years.

“People are now looking back,” Fennell said. “Like women who have suffered multiple miscarriages, stillborn babies, people who have various cancers right now. They’ve just been notified. They had no way of knowing they were being exposed to anything that could have caused it. They could just think it was the card they were dealt.

Fennell, who now runs the Mine Mill Cytotoxin Project, said the facilities’ failure to protect their workers is indicative of a wider problem in the province.

“There is no legislation in Ontario regarding cytotoxic drugs,” she says. “So often, unless you were kept to the wire, there were minimal precautions offered, and policies buried in hundreds of policies, they weren’t really in place.”

Mine Mill President Eric Boulay said the organization intends to continue to commit resources and time to the project, which includes notifying the 900 currently active members working in long-term care homes. .

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He said facilities are unlikely to face any consequences unless a change takes place at the provincial level.

“The Department of Labor has stepped in and cited (local facilities) multiple times, but there is no monetary fine for this,” he said. “Until the legislation is in place, they can only enforce what is there at the moment. The fact that two other provinces (Saskatchewan and British Columbia) already have legislation on this subject clearly indicates its importance. This is what we hope to change.

The union did not specify which local facilities were cited, or which are considered possible exposure sites.

Listed facilities that currently employ their members include Elizabeth Centre, Finlandia Nursing Home, St. Joseph’s Villa and Villa St. Gabriel Villa long-term care homes, as well as Walford on the Park and Sudbury Finnish Rest Home retirement homes.

Finlandia Village CEO David Munch confirmed in a statement that he has been told by the Department of Labor that its policies and procedures need to be improved. He said the organization is “taking all available steps to resolve the current situation.”

“We quickly implemented new safety measures, including appropriate personal protective equipment and procedures for the safe handling of hazardous waste,” Munch said. “We are committed to the health and safety of all our staff and our residence and look forward to continuing good communication with our staff to bring this to the fore for action and resolution.”

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Saint-Joseph Health Center – which operates both Villa Saint-Joseph and Villa Saint-Gabriel – did not say whether it had received any citations.

“We strive to create a nurturing care environment for our residents and a safe and healthy work environment for staff,” President and CEO Kari Gervais said in a written statement. “We will work closely with our Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, in conjunction with the Department of Labor, to respond to any findings and review our processes to ensure we are following best practices and applicable legislation. . »

The union encourages all current and past members to get in touch if they believe they have been exposed, in order to file the necessary paperwork with the WSIB and have their paperwork logged.

“I just want to get the message out to our members, and indeed to all the health care workers in the city,” Boulay said. “There are many long-term care facilities, home health services, even the general public if they were caring for a loved one who was taking one of these drugs. They could also be affected.

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible by funding from the federal government.

[email protected]

Twitter: @mia_rjensen

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