By Michael Selinger
A Melbourne health service has been charged with alleged health and safety breaches following the assault of a nurse by a patient at one of its facilities.
WorkSafe Victoria has filed three charges against Austin Health at the Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court under section 21 of the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.
The regulator alleges that the employer failed to provide and maintain a safe workplace and provide information to the employee to reduce the risk of the assault.
The 2017 incident, which occurred at Austin Health’s Secure Extended Care Unit in Heidelberg, left the nurse with face, head and body injuries requiring hospital treatment.
The matter will be heard on August 28.
This is no isolated incident
The reported strike last week in NSW of many thousands of health workers, including paramedics, security and admin staff reflects a more widespread concern of violence in the workplace.
In the case of the health workers, the strike was called to highlight the issue of staff safety after a series of assaults on healthcare workers. Health care workers are a known group of workers that are exposed to violent assaults, but they are not alone.
In 2015-16 there were 2,130 cases where a worker had to take more than one week off following an assault at the workplace – almost double the number of claims recorded in 2000-01 – according to data compiled by Safe Work Australia.
Some of the most affected workers are in industries where the customers or other members of the public pose a risk. These include the healthcare, aged care, law enforcement and disability and youth services industries, as well as education, security, banking, retail and hospitality. The risk of violence can range from verbal threats to pushing, hitting, spitting or biting, threatening with a weapon or even sexual assault.
Work-related violence is a physical health concern but there is also a significant psychological health risk.
You have an obligation to eliminate the risk of workplace violence
As an employer, you are required to identify and minimise the risk of violence. A number of steps that can be taken include:
1. Identifying the operational activities that may expose workers and others to the risk of work-related violence.
Review existing hazard and incident reports, workers’ compensation claims data and industry guidelines as well as local and industry crime statistics to determine when your workers may be at risk of violence while they are at work.
2. Consulting with the relevant stakeholders, including workers, to determine the risk of work-related violence for each operational activity identified.
Speak with your health and safety representatives and conduct a workplace audit and walkthrough inspection to identify where the risks lie.
Remember that to consult effectively, you should actively promote the fact that you are seeking your workers’ input and ensure that your workers have a method to provide their feedback.
3. Investigating the possibility of eliminating the operational activities where there is a risk of work-related violence.
Workplace violence typically falls into two categories:
- service-related violence – where the violence comes from people the worker normally works with; and
- external or intrusive workplace violence – normally associated with robbery or other crimes.
In both instances, workers are at greater risk if they are:
- working alone;
- working with high-value products, such as medication or cash; and
- working with limited communication methods – such as no emergency response systems.
Eliminating a hazard is always the first choice when it comes to implementing risk controls. If it is possible to avoid these high-risk activities entirely, this would be a major step towards reducing the risk of workplace violence.
4. Where it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the activity, identifying work systems and procedures that aim to significantly reduce the risk associated with work-related violence.
These systems and procedures may include:
- communication systems, e.g. personal duress alarms and security monitoring systems;
- policies and procedures for working alone;
- movement records, i.e. a schedule of where the worker will be throughout their shift;
- welfare checks, i.e. regular contact between the worker and someone at the workplace;
- identification systems, i.e. clear identification of employees, authorised visitors and contractors; and
- site security access systems, e.g. swipe cards.
5. Providing adequate information, instruction, training and supervision.
Develop and implement procedures to educate your workers about how to deal with a situation where there is a potential for violence while they are at work, including:
- putting in place work-related violence policies and procedures in a training and induction package;
- providing emergency response training, e.g. responding to incidents of work-related violence;
- testing emergency response systems; and
- providing resilience training to workers carrying out the high-risk work.
Action you can take now
If work-related violence poses a risk to your workers, you should develop a work-related violence policy, stating your commitment to addressing and dealing with the issue and being the basis of the work-related violence information and training you provide to your workers.
You should also consider developing a procedure for responding to incidences of work-related violence – which might include a plan for dealing with an aggressor, an evacuation procedure and any necessary physical or psychological support.