This past December Vanessa Woodacre and I travelled to the town of Fergus to meet with a small group of Educational Assistants (EAs). We were there to interview them about the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that is routinely required at work to protect themselves from the sometimes daily violence they experience while working with their assigned students. You can read Vanessa’s article on page 14 of this issue.
While Vanessa began to interview the first EA in a private corner of the room, I asked the others about the protective equipment that they had brought along.
First, I learned that their Kevlar armguards were not the hard, plastic braces I expected; instead they looked like yellow knitted socks. “These protect you from bites?” I asked. “No. No, not really,” I was told. The armguards protected them from the puncture wounds associated with bites, but as one EA rolled up her sleeve, I could see the deep purple-green bruise that was the usual if not an uncommon result.
“Is that a denim vest?” I asked. Actually, it was a smock. And yes it was denim because that’s the toughest material the EA was able to sew. Yes, they make some of their own safety equipment.
“What about training?” I asked. They rhymed off NVCI NI, BSMT and a series of other acronyms. But some of the physical restraints taught seldom work on larger students or they require more than one person.
“Safety plans?” I asked. The EAs nodded their heads. Yes, students usually have safety plans but they’re not always effective or even up to date. Of course, these are not ordinary students. These are special needs students who have congenital or acquired conditions that have left them with particular propensities for violence. It is the job of the EAs to support these students to achieve success in the classroom and in school settings.
So there is the conundrum. In our schools we have students who have little or no control over their violent actions and they require support. And we have EAs whose job it is to support these students and who are inevitably the victims of their aggressive acts.
The real question to ask is: “Should anyone be expected to be a victim of physical violence at work?”
I can’t help but notice the similarity to Ontario’s nurses. Like our EAs, they face the prospect of violence on a daily basis. And like our EAs, they are a job class of predominately women. Can it be that the risks of workplace violence for EAs and nurses is at least partly due to gender?
I don’t believe the argument that any job should come with an expectation for violence. Where the potential for violence exists, the onus is on the employer to provide required, ongoing safety plans, training, equipment and support. Our EAs, like our nurses, deserve the same commitment to workplace safety as the rest of us.
Randy Banderob, Editor