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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Alert24 - Safeguard Update

Caregivers at risk

Caregivers at risk
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Publication Date:
New Zealand

A survey of workers caring for clients with mental and intellectual disabilities has found that many experience high levels of client aggression, but are not well supported by their employer.

Speaking at the 6th International Conference on Precarious Work and Vulnerable Workers, hosted by AUT’s Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research, Fritz Drissner, health and safety officer for the E Tū union, shared caregivers’ stories about the physical and psychological trauma they have suffered in the course of their work.

He told of a female worker chased from building to building by a male client who was throwing things at her. Eventually he tackled her to the ground and knocked her unconscious, causing injuries that required hospital treatment, and emotional harm that kept her off work for months.

The union had been aware of the issue of client-initiated violence for a long time, he said, and decided to survey members to find out how widespread the problem was, and how it was being dealt with by the employer.

The results, he cautioned, were not scientific, because participation in the survey was voluntary and not a representative sample. However the results did provide uncomfortable insights into the situations faced by some caregivers.

“Of the 292 surveys that were returned, 199 had experienced a violent incident within the previous year,” he said. “Of those, 122 people had experienced more than one incident, and there had been a total of 424 incidents over the year, at least 254 of which were physical in nature.”

Although verbal abuse was the most commonly reported issue, accounting for 140 incidents, there were also reports of punching, kicking, biting, hair pulling and being struck with objects.

Most of the incidents did not cause significant injury, although four carers required hospital treatment, 13 saw a GP, nine received first aid, and 22 had time off work. Ten people received support from a counsellor or EAP provider.

The survey showed that although 65% of incidents were reported to the employer, fewer than half were investigated.

“Workers said there was no point in investigating because behaviour management was regarded as the only way to deal with the hazard of client aggression. If an incident occurred it meant behaviour management had failed, so workers were told they hadn’t used their training.”

Of the cases that were investigated, most workers were dissatisfied with the outcomes, and reported no resulting changes in hazard management. Some said their employer listened to clients’ explanations of what had happened, but did not consult staff.

“Workers talk of coming to expect physical and verbal abuse – that it’s just what happens when you’re caring for people,” Drissner said. “But as one worker told us: ‘Our clients are our main priority, but staff must also be valued.’”

He noted that H&S reps were involved in only 12 of the incident investigations, pointing out that changes to the system for selecting reps meant that, instead of having a rep for every residential facility, there was now only one for every 60 to 80 workers, and they often covered a wide geographical area.

“That’s one reason why the reps weren’t involved, but also the employer didn’t see them having a role in the process. It would have been up to the investigating managers to bring the reps in, but they didn’t.”

The survey has highlighted the need for a stand-alone violence prevention programme for caregivers that prioritises worker health and safety, he said.

“There need to be targets for managers in terms of violence prevention, and better physical environments where people can take refuge.

“It’s a difficult risk to manage, but there are things that can be done, and you should not just accept that this is something that happens to workers on a regular basis.”



People Mentioned:
Fritz Drissner
Organisations Mentioned:
E Tu
Reference No:

From Alert24 - Safeguard Update

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