HealthApril 30, 2024

Creating a safe work environment for Australian nurses

Protecting nurses from occupational hazards benefits individual workers, patients, and the health system.

Nurses face many challenges in the workplace: they’re overworked, they have to deal with the effects of understaffing, and they have physically demanding jobs. On top of that, safety issues can cause difficult situations for them. The risks nurses face include exposure to hazardous materials, workplace injuries and infections, and even the possibility of assault.

Even when a situation does not involve violence, nurses may still find themselves dealing with difficult patients or caregivers. In their day-to-day duties, nurses speak with a variety of people from different backgrounds - possibly at stressful and uncertain times—and so, they must tailor their communications accordingly to avoid escalating an already difficult situation.

Nurses need support to handle such situations, and they need to know how to manage workplace health and safety (WHS) challenges. Healthcare organisations have an obligation to provide safe work environments, to reduce known risks, and to establish well-defined policies and procedures that support nurses in what they do.

Workers in healthcare settings can face a range of work health and safety (WHS) hazards, including exposure to infection and bodily fluids, musculoskeletal injuries, work overload, and patient aggression. Up to 95% of healthcare workers report being harassed or assaulted at work, according to WorkSafe Victoria. And only one in five reports the incident.

Because nurses are frontline staff, it is imperative that they be able to operate in a safe work environment so as not to impede their capacity to provide high-quality and timely care and so as to avoid high-stress situations that can lead to turnover.

“Healthcare workers have the right to be safe at their jobs, and patients have the right to be safe in healthcare environments,” Chief Nurse of Wolters Kluwer, Health Learning, Research & Practice Anne Dabrow Woods, DNP, RN, CRNP, ANP-BC, AGACNP-BC, FAAN, said in a recent blog post, emphasising the importance of “having an adequate number of competent staff in addition to ensuring the emotional and psychological safety of healthcare workers so that they feel unencumbered to voice concerns over unsafe situations.” The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) reports, “All nurses have the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace environment and to perform their work without risks to their physical and psychological health and safety.”

Effective workplace safety strategies are crucial to supporting the well-being of healthcare staff. For example, Queensland’s Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work: Code of Practice 2022 requires employers to actively manage “high physical, mental, and emotional demands” that can risk the health and safety of workers.

Increased risks at remote sites

Workplace safety is a major concern for those in nursing workforces who serve in regional, rural, and remote areas across Australia. Remote workers who have only limited access to other health professionals and police support are especially more vulnerable during clinics and callouts.

Since the 2017 enactment of Gayle’s Law in South Australia, the Australian College of Nursing has been lobbying for national legislation stipulating that nurses can no longer work in single-nurse posts without the support of a second responder. Nurses on remote postings also require more support to learn how to navigate their isolated locations, including gaining familiarity with cultural expectations and undergoing driver training for negotiating unsealed roads.

Addressing the risks

Nursing staffs should be trained in how to risk-assess whether someone is likely to become aggressive, how to detect early warning signs of aggression, and how to apply de-escalation skills. Effective communication is a core skill for nurses who must approach each interaction in a caring and professional manner.

Organisations should ensure they have the appropriate policies in place to help nurses navigate risks by:

  • Ensuring premises, work spaces, and equipment are designed and used with safety in mind
  • Implementing policies and systems of work to identify and assess risks and then reduce or eliminate such hazards
  • Being aware of all relevant legislation and WHS obligations
  • Providing training, information, and staffing levels so everyone can perform work safely
  • Establishing an easy-to-use reporting system for work-related injuries, illnesses, incidents, and hazards.

Although health organisations have major duties on the WHS front, nurses also have their own responsibilities such as adhering to health and safety procedures; reporting hazards, injuries, and incidents; participating in health and safety training; and using safety equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) as instructed.

Safety leads to job satisfaction

Nurses’ concerns about nurse safety can cause additional stress and anxiety, leading to physical and mental ill health, job dissatisfaction, and less confidence in clinical decision-making. Frequent exposure to workplace aggression by patients, for example, has been associated with higher levels of burnout.

Besides the obvious risks to nursing staff, a workplace that is unsafe has a direct impact on turnover. Those worried about their safety or experiencing burnout may cut back on their hours, quit their jobs, or retire early. Given Australia’s current urgent need to retain its nursing workforce, it is vital to make workplace safety a priority to boost job satisfaction and retention rates. It is also important to ensure clear policies and procedures are in place that create an environment in which nurses feel supported.

No matter where nurses serve — from a hectic emergency department in a city hospital to a quiet outpost in the outback — they are entitled to a safe work environment. They need assurance that they can provide a community with the evidence-based care they need while being cared for themselves. Equipping nurses with expertise and empowering them with pertinent skill sets and evidence-based knowledge, supported through proper training, policies, and procedures, will give nurses the confidence to navigate complex situations.

Find out more about how Lippincott® Solutions can support nurses in their workplaces.

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