Stop Violence Against Health Workers


Article by Diana Asmar, HWU Secretary
Herald Sun, Saturday 8 Oct 2022

IN A large hospital in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, an adolescent with mental health issues repeatedly rains blows on a nurse’s head. The adolescent continues to beat the nurse as she lies unconscious on the floor. A hospital security officer enters the room to rescue the nurse and while trying to subdue the patient is bitten on the arm, but eventually succeeds.

The security officer probably saved the nurse’s life.

This is just one example of the reality of health work.

As secretary of the Health Workers Union, which represents workers on the frontline of public hospitals – including our security officers, admin workers, triage, patient services assistants, pathology workers, domestic and food services assistants – I can tell you categorically that politicians have let down vulnerable health workers when it comes to protecting their personal safety.

Unfortunately, state government funding of WorkSafe advertisements and awareness campaigns on television about violence against health workers reaches populations in an educational sense, but does nothing to help or protect the victims.

Violent events occur frequently to all levels of staff employed in hospital settings.

Events are spontaneous and can last seconds or minutes. Staff have no training on how to protect themselves. There is no uniform violence and aggression training of security officers across Victorian hospitals, nor are there uniform requirements with respect to their qualifications.

The policy of the opposition this week to employ 75 gun-wielding protective services officers to deal with this violence will not work.

It may be effective if there is a terrorist attack or a hostage situation but will be inappropriate to deal with the violent attacks and injuries sustained by our members and other hospital staff.

In fact, a 2011 Parliamentary Inquiry into Violence and Security Arrangements in Victorian Hospitals rejected the proposal to put PSOs in hospitals for a range of reasons, including safety.

Organisational level responses to actual or potentially violent acts to staff by patients – called code greys – occur daily at most major hospitals, and frequently in regional hospitals.

What is the solution to this violence against health workers?

Firstly, the HWU believes Victoria needs to fund an extra 500 public hospital security officers, at a minimum.

There are some 135 public hospital sites across Victoria. Employing an extra 500 would hopefully place an extra eight to 10 security officers at major hospitals, and a handful at smaller and regional hospitals.

Employing a reasonable number of trained security officers would barely cover the shifts required, but would be a good start.

Secondly, we need uniform security training that focuses on incident de-escalation. Security officers need that training – as well as self-defence – but also an understanding of the needs of the patients who are behaving dysfunctionally.

Before the last state election, the HWU relayed its concerns about having uniform training available to affected hospital workers – including security officers – to the Victorian government. It listened. The Premier issued a press release on October 23, 2018, announcing “the establishment of a landmark training and skills program for hardworking health services workers and tailored training to keep frontline staff safe from violence” worth $2.2m.

Further, he added, a “re-elected Labor government will establish a $1.25m Health Services Workers Training Fund two-year pilot”.

The Health Education Federation was created and a comprehensive pilot training program got delivered with the overwhelming support of health workers.

The promised funding for this training delivered three sessions. It stopped because the Department of Health imposed bureaucratic requirements (which were then withdrawn), significantly delaying the capacity to deliver effective in-hospital training.

Our union invested in the safety of health workers, financially and in terms of their contribution to perfect the HEF. Save for Covid, it would have been delivered to public health workers throughout the state, regardless of whether they were members of the union. The Covid crisis should not have stopped or delayed the training.

The Premier’s initial intentions to fix this issue, to date, have not been actioned.

Meanwhile, health workers are suffering. Last week one of our members, in uniform, was beaten-up by thugs outside a Melbourne CBD hospital while exiting their vehicle at work. A patient services assistant at a hospital in Melbourne’s southeast was attacked while trying to protect a colleague. Her back was broken.

These stories are endless. This issue will not go away.

Victorian health workers deserve and are entitled to uniform training, so they know how to diffuse and de-escalate acts of violence and protect themselves when things go wrong.

Is it too much to ask for politicians to deliver this?

Our members have been let down for a long time by the Department of Health and politicians whose annual salary is tenfold that of the health workers who put their lives at risk to protect their colleagues and the community.