Health sector safety under examination
A new government safety plan aims to dramatically reduce the number of health care employees who suffer workplace-related illnesses and injuries.
Putting patient needs above the wellbeing of health care workers has contributed to an alarming rate of serious work injuries, the NSW government has conceded.
The government also admits other contributing factors include greater reliance on casuals and outsourced labour and lack of awareness of workplace rights.
Failure to report violence and aggression, working long hours and double shifts also contribute to high injury rates, it says.
And workers may not report injuries or hazards because they fear losing their job or work visa.
These admissions are contained in the government’s ‘Work Health and Safety Roadmap’ for the health care and social assistance sector.
The plan aims to cut serious illnesses and injuries in half by 2022.
It defines ’serious’ as resulting in one week or more time lost excluding fatalities and journey claims.
According to the Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, Kevin Anderson, workers in the sector suffer more than 13,000 injuries every year.
“Alarmingly, nearly half (43 per cent) of all these injuries are serious, resulting in five or more days off work,” he says in his introduction to the plan.
He says work can be physically and emotionally demanding and “workers are often putting the needs of patients before their own”.
“It is important that we look after workers and ensure they too are healthy and safe.”
Nursing support and personal care workers, registered nurses and aged and disabled carers have the highest number of claims in the sector.
More difficult to control work environment
The most common major injuries are trauma to muscles, joints and ligaments, soft tissue injuries and anxiety/stress disorders.
The top causes of injury are muscular stress, falls, harassment and bullying and work pressure.
Major injuries result in an average of 19 weeks off work.
The plan identifies several contributing factors to the high injury rate.
The shift to home and community-based care has made it more difficult to control the work environment.
Greater casualisation and outsourcing of the workforce mean that “workers have less control and certainty over their working hours and conditions”.
The wellbeing of clients, patients and residents “is often prioritised over the wellbeing of the workers”.
“Underreporting and feelings that violence and aggression is ‘part of the job’ are commonly held views across the sector.
“Acknowledging that the work and care of patients or clients can’t stop, working long hours or double shifts is common practice across the sector.”
The health care sector employs a high proportion of migrant workers including those on work visas, young people, labour hire workers and inexperienced workers.
They may not be aware of their occupational health and safety rights and responsibilities, the plan says.
They may not report injuries or hazards due to “fear of actual or perceived repercussions such as losing their job or visa”.
Four priority areas
The government has four main priority areas where injury rates are to be reduced.
They are ’psychosocial hazards’, work-related violence, musculo-skeletal disorders and exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Psychosocial hazards are defined as anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of stress.
They include high job demands, low job control, poor support and poor workplace relationships.
Work-related violence covers any incident in which a worker is abused, threatened or assaulted.
Examples include spitting, verbal aggression and threats, physical intimidation, threats with weapons, physical and sexual assault.
Musculoskeletal disorders – sprains and strains of muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints – are the most common work-related injuries, the plan says.
They can result from gradual wear and tear and/or sudden damage.
Exposure to hazardous chemicals is the fourth priority area.
Health care workers may be regularly exposed to formaldehyde, asthmagens and cytotoxic drugs.
The plan aims to increase awareness of workplace health and safety risks (WHS) and get workplaces to consult with staff on “all WHS matters”.
In the longer term, it wants to see workplaces make system and design changes to reduce risk.
“A safe culture and environment so workers feel they can speak up” is a long-term goal.
Safer Work Safer Care
October is Australian Safework Month and the NSWNMA will be ramping up our anti-violence campaign to ensure every nurse and midwife in the state is safe at work.
During Safework month, the NSWNMA will be visiting hospitals across NSW and we could be heading to a site near you! Keep an eye on your email inbox for updates.
Resources for Members
The NSWNMA has produced a number of resources that will be useful to members during Australian Safework Month.
Download the NSWNMA violence app
The NSWNMA has launched an app for smart phones. The NSWNMA Toolkit is available in the App store on for iPhones and Google Play for your Androids.
The star of this Toolkit is the spot check calculator, which many in the public health system will be familiar with. It’s designed to help you keep track of your nursing hours on your ratios ward.