Nurses must be protected from danger

August 2012

Editorialaug2012While nursing is an enormously rewarding and fulfilling career, the nature of the job can leave us vulnerable to injury and the environments in which we practice can be inherently dangerous.

Over the past few months The Lamp has published numerous interviews with nurses who have been injured at work.

We have talked with nurses who have suffered musculo-skeletal injuries and psychological injuries and who have been subjected to many forms of anxiety and stress as a consequence: fear about their health, uncertainty about their futures, with strains on their relationships and the distress of financial hardship.

It is important that we hear these stories. Their plight has been brought into focus by the heartless behaviour of the state government and its ruthless attack on the workers’ compensation scheme.

If the government was left uncontested all we would hear about would be budgets and deficits, about the never ending burden on insurers and the corporate sector, and the impending doom for New South Wales if nothing is done.

Reducing the issue to a debate about money effectively hides from view some inconvenient truths about the tragic consequences for real people when they are hurt at work.

Justice Health

Justice Health is one of those nursing environments that contains inherent dangers. Prisons are hothouses that can exacerbate dysfunctions such as mental health and substance abuse, and it is self evident that they can be violent places.

Our members in Justice Health stoically persevere under trying circumstances to deliver great outcomes for difficult patients. There have been standards particular to the sector, such as 12-hour shifts and paid meal breaks, that were accepted by management and helped alleviate the pressures of the job.

Consistent with a wide-ranging attack on the public sector, these conditions are now under threat. Our members in Justice Health have not taken this lying down, responding with a strike in facilities throughout the state (see page 16). This industrial action has also been driven by frustrations about staffing and safety. They deserve our support.

At Grafton jail the state government’s drive to reduce the public sector will have other consequences for health. The prison is an important source of employment in the town and its downgrading to a remand facility will not only see the loss of nursing positions, alongside those of prison officers, but valuable nurses at Grafton hospital could be lost as their partners are forced to relocate with the disappearance of their jobs.

Again, the local community has not taken this lying down, and has responded with massive rallies for a town of that size.

Violence is on the rise

During the past 15 months, the NSWNA has received approximately one report per month of a serious assault against one of our members. This is significantly more than the average in previous years.

Of those incidents, five involved stabbings or attempted stabbings – one of which was fatal – and three incidents resulted in serious head injuries. Two occurred in emergency departments, one in a mental health rehabilitation unit, one on a general ward, and one in an aged care facility.

A study from the University of Wollongong found that 25% of nurses in two Illawarra EDs experienced a physical assault at least once a month. There is evidence that much of the violence against nurses is fuelled by alcohol.

Nurses, police and ambulance drivers deserve to be protected from such violence. The NSWNA has engaged with other unions representing emergency workers in the Last Drinks campaign, to advocate policies that would curb alcohol-fuelled violence.

We want to see the state government engage more constructively to protect nurses in areas such as Justice Health, EDs and Mental Health, which are often unsafe, and to revoke their noxious changes to workers’ compensation that penalise workers who are hurt in the course of doing their jobs.