Big fine for DADHC after assault

Isolated nurse attacked by dangerous resident.

A savage attack on a nurse at a Sydney residence for developmentally disabled people should have been foreseen and could easily have been prevented, an industrial judge has found.

Simple steps to make the workplace safer remained unenforced even months after the assault, Justice WR Haylen said.
Justice Haylen fined the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care (DADHC) $227,500 after the department pleaded guilty to a breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

It was the tenth fine imposed on DADHC for occupational health breaches since 1999.

The attack on the nurse, by a resident referred to as BL, happened at Logan Cottage in DADHC’s Rydalmere Centre on 25 September 2002.

BL entered the nurses’ office and punched the nurse in the head. She activated her personal duress alarm and screamed, but BL continued punching, knocking her to the floor and kicking her several times in the groin.

The nurse suffered deep cuts and bruises and required 11 weeks off work after being diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Justice Haylen said a psychiatrist’s report before the assault showed that BL was ‘potentially extremely dangerous’.
In the eight months before the assault, BL had been responsible for 17 incidents of verbally and physically aggressive behaviour and damage to property.

Justice Haylen said ‘a large question mark remains about how BL came to be located where he was.’ BL was transferred to a more secure unit after the attack.

He said the nurse was the only staff member rostered to work at the cottage where BL lived.

There was only one door to the nurses’ office and it was not locked to prevent clients entering.

Though the nurse used her personal duress alarm during the attack, the nurses’ office, unlike other buildings, did not have an installed duress alarm or a warning light attached to the outside. This light would have allowed other staff to pinpoint where the alarm was coming from.

Because of the absence of a warning light, at least one staff member who responded to the alarm went to the wrong building before finally turning up at the nurses’ office.

Justice Haylen said steps taken by DADHC in response to the assault included:

  • Installing emergency exit doors
  • Installing a hard-wired duress button and duress location light
  • Staff training.

He added that DADHC had not issued a directive to keep clients out of the nurses’ office until almost four months after the assault. The directive had to be reissued three months later because it was not being observed.

He said he accepted of the assault should be seen in the context of a large number of front-line DADHC staff, by the nature of their work, being exposed to challenging behaviour and having to deal with it.

Nevertheless he said DADHC had committed a serious offence. ‘I believe that there was foreseeability of this risk and simple steps to remedy the detriment to safety exposed by this incident’ he said.

Safety measures still inadequate

Safety measures at the Rydalmere Centre are still not up to scratch – two and a half years after the bashing of the nurse at Logan Cottage.

NSWNA health and safety coordinator Trish Butrej said staff remain vulnerable because the alarm system depends on other staff members being close enough to a cottage to hear its individual alarm siren.

‘There could be circumstances in which other staff may not hear the siren. Even if another staff member does hear an alarm they may not be able to leave a client to go to the aid of a colleague. There still doesn’t seem to be any organised method of responding to an alarm,’ Trish said.

She said the NSWNA will push for the installation of a personal duress alarm system which directly pages other staff members giving the location of the problem.

The Association will also seek to have locks fitted to all cottages. ‘Some cottages can’t be locked against intruders, leaving residents and nurses vulnerable,’ Trish said.

DADHC does not seem to have learned from these prosecutions. It is not unusual to find their employees working alone in high-risk situations with either no alarm or an inadequate alarm.

‘The NSWNA believes nurses should never work alone with potentially violent clients and that all possible protection should be offered to the staff.’