Precedent-setting arbitration award against SAH

Sault Area Hospital

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) has won an important and precedent-setting arbitration award against Sault Area Hospital, striking down the controversial “Vaccinate or Mask” policy introduced at many Ontario hospitals. This policy forces nurses and other health-care workers to wear an unfitted surgical mask for the entire flu season if they choose not to get the influenza vaccine.

This arbitration between ONA and the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) involving Sault Area Hospital was the lead case on this contentious policy and is expected to have a widespread impact on Ontario hospitals. As a result, hospitals, unions, health-care workers and other stakeholders were watching this case closely.

After considering detailed evidence from six experts from across Canada and the U.S. over the course of 18 days of hearings, Arbitrator Jim Hayes found the policy to be unreasonable and “coercive.” He also found that the mask was not an effective measure for patient safety. As a result, the Arbitrator concluded that the requirement to vaccinate or mask was a “coercive tool” to force health-care workers to receive the immunization.

“The first priority of nurses across Ontario is the safety of our patients,” said ONA President Linda Haslam-Stroud, RN. “However, these coercive employer policies do not truly advance patient safety. Our Collective Agreement protects our patients if the medical officer of health determines that there is an influenza outbreak by ensuring that comprehensive measures are put in place to reduce the risk of transmission to patients. The Vaccinate or Mask policies have been highly criticized as symbolic rather than scientifically based tool in the fight against influenza.”

ONA’s experts testified that forcing healthy registered nurses to wear masks for up to six months during the influenza season did little or nothing to prevent transmission of the virus in hospitals. They testified that nurses who have no symptoms are unlikely to be a real source of transmission and that it was “illogical” to force healthy nurses to mask. Arbitrator Hayes sided with ONA’s well-regarded expert witnesses and concluded that there was “scant” evidence that forcing nurses to use masks reduced the transmission of influenza to patients. ONA’s expert witnesses included Dr. Michael Gardam and Dr. Camille Lemieux, Infection Control experts from the University Health Network, Quebec epidemiologist Dr. Gaston De Serres, and Dr. Lisa Brosseau, an American expert on masks.

The Arbitrator also found that the policy undermines the Collective Agreement rights of employees to choose to take the vaccine or not. A copy of the full decision is available here.

ONA is the Union representing 60,000 front-line registered nurses and allied health professionals as well as more than 14,000 nursing student affiliates providing care in Ontario hospitals, long-term care facilities, public health, the community, industry and clinics.