What began 24 years ago as a part-time high school job working in the laundry department of Sunnybrook Hospital would become a fulltime career and eventually see Sonia Reynolds assume the presidency of her union local. Throughout the years, health and safety was always a priority says Reynolds, “Health and safety affects everyone.”
Formerly president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 777, Reynolds is now an executive board member of SEIU Local 1.on. Boasting 40,000 members, it was formed this spring with the amalgamation of six independent SEIU Ontario locals.
Reynolds says she began as any interested member who simply wanted to learn more. She was first appointed a union steward and later a joint health and safety committee member. Reynolds, also a Workers Centre-qualified instructor, says, “Each of these opportunities was a chance to learn more. Once you have information in your head no one can take it away from you. That’s a powerful thing.”
Later as a certified member Reynolds says, “The added power certified members have under the Act
and skills gained through training allowed me to better confront issues and help even more people.”
When she served as Local president Reynolds insists, “I didn’t think it meant my health and safety activism should end. Union leaders should be as broadly educated as possible. Nothing is more important than returning home safely to your family every day.”
Constantly upgrading her skills would come in handy. With hospital amalgamation, Reynolds’ Local expanded to 1,600 members encompassing workers at Women’s College Hospital and the Orthopaedic and Arthritic Hospital.
Despite these challenges she believes solutions are often simple and inexpensive. For example, a review of injury statistics showed a high incidence of sprains and strains among laundry and food service workers. They identified the constant pushing and pulling of heavy carts as a factor. An inspection of the carts showed thread and debris were sticking to the wheels impeding their movement and forcing workers to use Herculean efforts to move them, says Reynolds. More frequent equipment inspections supplemented with educationals helped the injury rate drop.
Needlestick injuries too have long plagued not only SEIU nursing professionals but members working in laundry, food service and maintenance units. Reynolds reports unsuspecting workers have been stuck by discarded needles and sharps devices which ended up in garbage bags, soiled linens and even on nutrition trays. Reynolds says however, with an intentional pun, they were able to find the needle in the haystack by tagging all garbage bags to identify the unit it originated from then following up to prevent future improper disposal.
Taking it a step further, SEIU and other health care unions are now lobbying the government to regulate the mandatory use of safety-engineered medical devices in an attempt to eliminate these injuries altogether.
As Treasurer of the Metro Toronto and York Region Labour Council, Reynolds spoke at Toronto’s Day of Mourning event this spring paying tribute to her often under-recognized frontline members who worked valiantly during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.
Ted Mansell is national health and safety coordinator for SEIU Canada. “Sonia is a tenacious fighter for the health and safety of her members. As a health care worker, she appreciates first-hand the serious, unique, and often deadly hazards faced by workers employed in the health care sector,” says Mansell. “SEIU is very proud of her genuine commitment and relentless dedication in the day-to-day battles for the protection of her members.”