Occupational health nurses to become new front line as Ontario reopens, advocate says

TORONTO — As most of Ontario moves into the second phase of its reopening plan, one advocate says occupational health nurses may become the newest front line in protecting against a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Lina Di Carlo, occupational health nurse and former president of Ontario Occupational Health Nurses Association (OOHNA), told CTV’s Your Morning that her profession will face added challenges as more people in the province return to work.

“The foundation of what we do is really to maintain, promote and restore health and safety in the workplace,” Di Carlo said in an interview on Thursday. “We work very hard with key players in organizations to put the right kind of systems in place to protect them from all kinds of hazards including communicable diseases.”

Di Carlo said the dangers occupational health nurses face is no different that that of those of health-care professionals working in hospitals.

“The risks are really somewhat the same in the sense that we’re managing potential cases, we’re managing the fear of our employees being exposed, having them understand what the pandemic is all about and what preventive measures they can take,” Di Carlo said.

“This pandemic is unlike anything that we’ve seen… and so having the right kind of processes to protect [employees] is really important,” she added.

Despite ensuring that workplaces remain safe amid the pandemic, occupational health nurses were not included in the Ontario government’s temporary pandemic pay increase program.

The Ontario government announced in April that those working on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic would receive a temporary $4 per hour pay increase including those working in acute hospitals, long-term care homes, retirement homes, and community care.

The province later expanded the pandemic pay increase to additional health-care sector workers such as paramedics and public health nurses. However, occupational health nurses were excluded.

Di Carlo said the exclusion of occupational health nurses “did and didn’t” surprise her.

“I think there is a lack of awareness of our specialty and what value we add to organizations, and so was I disappointed? Yes… We work very hard to be strong advocates for the health and safety of the workers, and we put ourselves at risk,” Di Carlo said.

“We’re working very hard, we’re navigating this whole world with employees, managing their exposures, their illnesses if they’ve acquired the disease, and so it was a disappointment to say the least.”

Approximately 375,000 front-line workers were initially slated to get the extra $4 hourly for 16 weeks with those working more than 100 hours also receiving a monthly bonus of $250. The Ontario government previously said it is not able to expand the pandemic pay program beyond those employees already deemed eligible.

However, most of those front-line works are still waiting to receive the pay increase two months after it was promised.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said Monday that the money will flow in “very short order,” but she did not provide a specific date.

Di Carlo said that even if occupational health nurses arent eventually added to the pandemic pay program, she wants there to be a greater awareness of the value they add to workplaces.

“Most leading employers have occupational health nurses on site, but there are many who don’t and they’re left at risk. [So] bringing about an awareness and being acknowledged for the work that we do to safeguard employees because if the employees aren’t there to do the work, then who’s taking care of the business or who’s taking care of the patients?” Di Carlo said.

As Ontario continues with its reopening, Di Carlo said it is “a good opportunity” for occupational health nurses to showcase how important their work is in protecting employees and she hopes that the provincial government will recognize that.

“As occupational health nurses that’s really what our forte is — to guide, to facilitate, to promote, to understand what kind of processes [employers] need to put in place to safeguard the health and wellness of employees,” Di Carlo said.

“As front-line workers take care of patients, the workers are our patients and we’re advocates for them.”

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