WINNIPEG -- The Manitoba Nurses Union says its members are drowning under heavy workloads, high vacancy rates and mandated overtime. Some nurses at the St. Boniface emergency department say conditions have gotten so bad, they fear patients may be at risk.

The fears of some nurses working in the St. Boniface ER came to light in a letter obtained by CTV News that outlines some of the challenges facing staff in the department.

"The nurses are extremely frustrated and ‘burnt out’. They are fearful on a daily basis to show up for their shift and are concerned that the opportunity for critical errors to be made is increasing," the letter reads.

"The current state of the emergency department at St. Boniface Hospital is in crisis and unsustainable."

The nurses say a newly renovated emergency department is inadequate and substandard. The waiting room is smaller and overcrowded, and triage nurses are unable to see people in the waiting room.

They say the renovation created three new secure areas for psychiatric care, but they are unable to staff them, meaning "aggressive, unpredictable" patients are being treated in common areas, the nurses say.

On top of these concerns, the ER nurses say they are facing numbers that they have never seen before, including an increase of critically ill patients who they are responsible for due to a lack of critical care beds in the system.

"Nurses are going several hours or entire shifts without meal breaks, bathroom breaks or an opportunity to sit down. This increases the risk of medical errors and the safety of patients," the letter reads.


MNU President Darlene Jackson said she is not surprised by the letter.

"Nurses are absolutely drowning under increased workload and overtime, so part of that is due to a higher number of patients being sent to the ERs, because of consolidation," Jackson told CTV News.

"Nurses are tired of seeing the health authority and the government bury their heads in the sand. We need to see a sincere acknowledgement of the problems that have been created. And we need to see some real action."

Jackson said one of the priorities that need to be addressed by the government is the high vacancy rate across Winnipeg hospitals.

At the end of January, the vacancy rate for ER nurses at the St. Boniface hospital was at 28 per cent. Jackson said she believes this is one of the highest vacancy rates in the city.

"When you add an increase in patients and an increase in acuity, and at 28% vacancy rate, you've got the perfect storm," she said, adding the province and employers need to dedicate more efforts to recruiting and retaining more nurses within the system.

"We need to see some real action. You cannot sustain a health care system on the backs of nurses and the backs of patients," Jackson said.

In a written statement to CTV News, Cameron Friesen, Minister of Health, Seniors, and Active Living said the province has confidence in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the St. Boniface leadership to keep engaging with the nurses and staff about their concerns.

"The efforts continue to stabilize and strengthen patient care, even during a very significant influenza surge," the statement reads. "These efforts are designed to provide Manitobans what they have long deserved, better health care sooner."

Read the full letter from nurses at the St. Boniface Hospital emergency department: