Overview

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Health care and social assistance workers include:

  • nurses
  • doctors
  • allied health professionals, and 
  • other support staff.  

They may work in health care and residential facilities or within people’s homes. These variable workplaces, and the possibility of working alone increases the risks to health and safety. 

Health care and social assistance workers are a key risk group due to the nature of their work. The work may be physically demanding, repetitive and expose workers to workplace stress and violence. Workers may be exposed to a range of hazards that can affect their health and well-being, depending on:

  • the services they provide
  • the location of the workplace, and 
  • the people being cared for. 

For a number of years, the health care and social services industry has been among the industries with the highest number of serious claims.

Work health and safety duties

Everyone in the workplace has a work health and safety duty and there are specific duties for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs). As a PCBU, you must ensure the health and safety of workers and others. This includes providing and maintaining a safe work environment. You must also provide the information, training, instruction and supervision that is needed for them to carry out work safely. These duties apply anywhere employees are working, for example:

  • a hospital
  • special care facility
  • a patient’s home, and 
  • a vehicle travelling between work sites.

Managing the risks

PCBUs have a number of obligations under the model WHS laws to manage identified risks, so far as is reasonably practicable. To manage health and safety risks, you must:

  • identify hazards in the workplace 
  • assess the associated risks
  • implement control measures to eliminate or minimise risks, and
  • regularly review control measures to ensure they remain effective. 

You must do these things in consultation with your workers and any health and safety representatives.

The model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks provides guidance on the risk management process.

Hazards and risks in the health care and social assistance industry 

You must identify hazards and manage the associated risks, so far as is reasonably practicable. You also must ensure the measures you put in place remain effective.

The following can help to identify potential hazards in the health care and social assistance industry: 

  • observe the workplace to identify any risks
  • review the tasks that involve working with hazards, such as chemicals and sharps
  • ask your workers and others about problems they have encountered at the workplace, and 
  • review incident and injury records, including near misses.

Common hazards and risks in the health care industry include, but are not limited to: 

  • ergonomic hazards from lifting, supporting and moving people and repetitive tasks
  • biological and chemical hazards 
  • medical equipment, such as lasers and x-rays
  • occupational violence, bullying and harassment
  • work-related stress
  • fatigue and shift work, and 
  • slips, trips and falls.

When you are identifying hazards, consider: 

  • all the different places that workers may be
  • the hazards they might encounter there, and 
  • the types of work they may be undertaking. 

Ways to manage risks

In many cases, the risks and related control measures will be well known. In other cases, you may need to carry out a risk assessment. A risk assessment identifies: 

  • the nature of the harm that could be caused by the hazard 
  • the likelihood of this harm occurring, and 
  • how serious the harm could be. 

A risk assessment helps determine what action should be taken to control the risks and how urgently the action needs to be taken. You should implement the most effective control measure that is reasonable in the circumstances. 

You must first consider if the risk can be eliminated. For example, have patients move on their own to eliminate manual handling risks.

Where elimination is not possible, you must minimise the risk, so far as is reasonably practicable. 

You must manage risks by working through the hierarchy of control measures. The hierarchy goes from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. For example, consider the following: 

  • substitute the hazard for something safer, such as using a safer chemical 
  • isolate the risk from workers. For example, set up exclusion zones to around hazardous medical equipment, and
  • engineering controls. For example, use lifting equipment to move patients to minimise risks of manual handling injuries. 

If a risk still remains, you must apply administrative control measures. 

Administrative control measures include: 

  • scheduling workers appropriately 
  • providing training, and 
  • providing supervision for workers that are out in the community.

Where appropriate, personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used to control any remaining risks. You must provide and, where relevant, maintain any necessary PPE. For example, biological and chemical hazards may require workers to wear gloves, eye protection, face masks and protective clothing. 

Administrative controls and PPE are the least effective ways to minimise risks because they do not control the hazard and rely on human behaviour.

A combination of control measures may be used where a single control is not enough to minimise the risks. All controls should be monitored and reviewed to ensure they remain effective.

Control measures for common hazards and risks 

Examples of control measures for some common hazards and risks in the healthcare and social assistance industry are listed below. You must implement control measures specific to the hazards and risks at your workplace. Potential hazards and control measures are not limited to what is outlined below. 

Hazard: lifting, supporting and moving patients 

Control measures: 

  • provide beds and chairs that can re-position the patient. For example, an electronic bed that can be raised into the sitting position 
  • provide equipment designed to lift and move patients safely
  • ensure there are enough workers to be able to perform the manual handling task safely 
  • ensure workers are trained in how to safely lift, support and move patients.

For more information, see the model Code of Practice: Hazardous manual tasks and the webpage Lifting, pushing and pulling

Hazard: biological and chemical hazards 

Control measures: 

  • ensure workers have access to hygiene facilities and products, such as handwashing and eyewashing stations 
  • store chemicals safely and securely and keep a chemical register with the relevant safety data sheets (SDS)
  • provide appropriate and correctly labelled waste receptacles for biological waste, chemicals and sharps 
  • train workers about storing, handling and disposing of biological hazards, chemicals and sharps safely  
  • provide PPE, such as gloves, face masks, eye protection and protective clothing.

For further information see the Hazardous chemicals webpage

Hazard: medical equipment, such as lasers and X-rays

Control measures: 

  • set up exclusion zones. For example, use signs and barriers to ensure workers and others cannot enter an area where the equipment is being used
  • train workers about storage and safe handling of medical equipment
  • ensure that the equipment is always operating at optimal levels and is regularly maintained
  • provide appropriate PPE, such as lead aprons and eye protection. Ensure PPE is adequately tested and maintained
  • monitor individual (personal) exposure through appropriate personal dosimeters and amount of the time when the worker is exposed to harmful radiation
  • ensure workers and others are not wearing metal objects such as jewellery while using magnetic equipment, such as MRIs 
  • carefully review the exposure conditions of pregnant workers and others to prevent exposure to unsafe doses of radiation. 

For more information, see the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety website

Control measures:

  • where possible, avoid workers needing to work alone
  • train workers in how to deal with:
  • difficult patients and visitors
  • conflict resolution, and 
  • when to escalate issues to senior staff, including procedures to report incidents
  • if a worker is working in isolation or alone, make sure they have communication devices, such as pagers or mobile phones. Ensure they can contact support if they do not have control of a situation or are unsafe 
  • provide a positive, respectful work culture. Ensure violence, aggression, harassment and bullying by other workers is not tolerated.

For more information see the Work-related violence webpage and the Bullying webpage.

Hazard: Psychosocial risks (mental health) 

Control measures: 

  • clearly define workers’ roles
  • provide workers with the resources, information and training they need to work safely
  • regularly review workloads and time pressures with workers
  • regularly check in with workers on how they are going, if anything is stressing them and how it can be addressed 
  • support workers who you identify to be at risk of workplace psychological injury
  • provide workers with a point of contact to discuss their concerns
  • refer workers to mental health and wellbeing support services. This includes employee assistance programs.

Hazard: slips, trips and falls 

Control measures: 

  • ensure the workplace is well lit 
  • use slip resistant flooring/mats 
  • ensure there are adequate cleaning procedures in place
  • where possible, keep floor areas clear
  • ensure workers have appropriate non-slip footwear.

For more information, see the Slips and trips fact sheet

Hazard: fatigue and shift work 

Control measures: 

  • where possible, design the shift schedules to reduce fatigue. For example, avoid late finish to early start shifts 
  • provide adequate rest, sleep and meal facilities. Ensure suitable accommodation is provided if required 
  • implement job rotation to limit fatigue from physically demanding or repetitive tasks 
  • ensure workers are able to take their scheduled breaks. For example, through organising relief workers for break times. 

For more information see the Guide for managing the risk of fatigue at work

Review control measures

Risk management is an ongoing process. You should review control measures regularly to ensure they are working as planned. Consult with workers and their health and safety representatives as part of this process. Consider any changes to the work or workplaces and ensure the controls remain effective. 

Community care workers may be working in several places, such as different people’s homes. Ensure community care workers can review and put control measures in place for each workplace. For more information see the model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks.

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. 

 

 

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