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The Healthcare and social assistance industry is the largest employing industry in Australia. It is rapidly expanding and is projected to continue to do so as the population both grows and ages, amplifying any current work health and safety issues and trends. It has a large number of work-related injuries and illness reported each year.

  • Since 2009–10, it has the highest number of claims among all Australian industries
  • It employs 12% of the Australian workforce but accounts for 16% of serious workers’ compensation claims in 2014–15
  • Since 2003 there have been 35 fatalities reported.

The industry has four subsectors which are:

  • ambulatory health care services
  • hospitals
  • nursing and residential care facilities
  • social assistance.

View the Health care and social assistance: Priority industry snapshot for an overview of the industry and its WHS performance.

Inherent risks associated with health care and social assistance

Healthcare and social assistance workers are a key risk group due to the very nature of the work they do on a daily basis. Although hazards are present in every workplace and are a threat to everyone’s health and safety, workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector are reported as having one of the highest rates of work related injuries and illnesses, predominantly due to the regular people handling.

Workers may be exposed to a range of hazards that can affect their health and well-being, depending on the services they are to provide, the location of the workplace and the clients being cared for. They work with highly toxic drug and chemical agents, perform physically demanding and repetitive tasks such as lifting patients, and are regularly exposed to workplace stress and violence, putting workers at an alarming risk for illness and injury. Although it is possible to prevent or reduce worker exposure to these hazards, due to the nature of the work, the workers often sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of their patients.

Healthcare and social assistance workers may work in designated facilities such as healthcare and residential facilities or within people’s homes. These variable workplace environments along with the fact that client services staff often work alone, can increase the risk to health and safety. Trends are also indicating that patients are getting older, sicker and heavier which these workers are also getting older. These factors are increasing the number of patients who will need lift assistance, raising the risk for workers suffering from musculoskeletal disorders caused by the increased demand of hazardous manual tasks. Workers in aged care have a higher than average chance of being seriously injured at work as a result due to hazardous manual tasks or slips, trips and falls.

Some of the hazards that health care workers face can be quite serious. These may include:

  • blood borne pathogens
  • biological hazards
  • chemical and drug exposures
  • respiratory hazards
  • ergonomic hazards from lifting and repetitive tasks
  • laser hazards
  • workplace violence
  • hazards associated with laboratories
  • radioactive material and x-ray hazards
  • stress
  • sharps injuries.

Between 2000–01 to 2014–15:

  • Body stressing represented more than half (51%) of workers’ compensation claims. Many of these were due to lifting people or moving beds, trolleys and other non-powered medical equipment.
  • Slips, trips and falls accounted for 19% of claims. Most involved stairs or falling over objects in high traffic areas.
  • Mental stress accounted for 8%, with more than half caused by other people.

Our national approach

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 has identified the health care and social assistance industry as a priority to reduce the high number and rate of work-related injuries and illnesses.

For a number of years it has consistently been among the top few industries with the highest number of serious claims.

  • The Strategy aims to reduce the incidence of serious injury by at least 30% nationwide by 2022. The health care and social assistance industry will play a critical role in meeting these targets, noting it represents a significant percentage of the claims made.

Since the Strategy launched, Safe Work Australia and many jurisdictions have been working collaboratively with the industry, unions, relevant organisations and the community to reduce injuries and illness in the health care and social assistance industry.

Impact on the individual and society

All injuries impact on the productivity in the workplace and on other employees. Experiencing a workplace accident can be very stressful for both the worker and their family. Besides trying to regain strength and normality as they were prior to the incident, a worker who has been injured on the job, be that physically, mentally or emotionally, may feel the strain an incident can cause. This could be financially, especially if the workers income supports the household and they are required to stop work temporarily or even at times, permanently. They may be unable to return to work, need a change of job or role to accommodate any new restrictions or be conscious that they now approach their work with a level of caution and deliberation not previously in evidence.

The cost of incidents is not just a burden to the business due to the reduced productivity of the organisation, but also to the injured workers, their families and society in general. Consequences for employees can include loss of quality of life and human suffering. Even when the workplace injuries are only temporary, the loss of confidence may affect the worker long after the physical symptoms have healed. Depression, increased levels of anxiety and at times, post-traumatic stress disorders may result, especially when there are lasting physical effects from the injury. If the worker is unable to return to their pre-injury position, the company will have to find a replacement worker and assist the injured worker in identifying a suitable alternative position.

The worker may suffer outside of the workplace, and this is something the workplace needs to consider. The injured worker may suffer from sleep disturbances, alterations in temperament, lack the ability to concentrate or make effective decisions, have additional medical and travel expenses, emphasising the financial burden, and suffer from high levels of frustration regarding the situation at hand.

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about work health and safety compliance in this industry. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority. For all their contact details, please refer to the Safe Work Australia’s home page.

This site is undergoing constant refinement. If you have noticed something that needs attention or have ideas for the site please let us know.

Last modified on Friday 29 June 2018 [8201|74106]