There were 604 reported assaults on nurses and front-line health staff in the last financial year, with almost half of these occurring in the mental health department.
Canberra Health Services (CHS) says the Mental Health, Justice Health, Alcohol and Drug division reported 285 incidents, or 47 per cent, of all reported physical incidents.
Following the revelation of the number of reported assaults, Shadow Health Minister Vicki Dunne criticised the Barr government for not taking decisive action to protect frontline health staff.
“This has been an ongoing issue. There have been lots of reports on violence on staff, mainly the mental health unit. That is the standout area,” she said.
“Everyone one of the staff assaults is a criminal offence, and there may be mitigating circumstances, but one of the things I do not think health authorities do is treat these as if they are criminal offences.
“If someone came into my office and attacked my staff I would be talking to the police, and I think ACT Health should be talking to the police about individual events, but also how to mitigate them.”
However, Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said the government is committed to ensuring front-line staff work in a safe environment.
“Addressing occupational violence in health settings is a challenge for the ACT, just as it is in other jurisdictions. The first step is ensuring that staff feel supported in reporting violence in the workplace,” Ms Stephen-Smith told Region Media.
“We strongly encourage reporting to ensure that every instance can be addressed appropriately. CHS has updated its incident classification procedures to provide detailed data that has helped to inform occupational violence prevention strategies.”
The government is due to release its Occupational Violence strategy after drafting the plan together with more than 80 managers and staff, Worksafe ACT, and consumer and union representatives over the last year.
While Ms Dunne has accused the government of being soft on crime after knocking back legislation from the Canberra Liberals that would toughen criminal penalties for assaults on frontline workers, Ms Stephen-Smith said taking a criminal justice approach will not fix the problem.
“Simply treating this as an issue of crime and criminality will do nothing to prevent escalation by vulnerable patients, which is a primary cause of violent incidents in Canberra Hospital, or to help health staff respond to risks and incidents appropriately,” she told Region Media.
However, issues affecting staff who try to defend themselves cannot be solely achieved through tougher criminal penalties Ms Dunne says, but rather red tape is also inhibiting staff and security from de-escalating aggressive situations.
“One of the things that we often find is that we have a small female confronted by a large, sometimes drug-addled person who is not quite right,” she said.
“You have a small female to de-escalate a situation and they can’t call on security staff or ward staff to help with that.”
Ms Dunne said the problem is that security staff aren’t authorised to physically intervene.
“No one can touch a patient in those circumstances, and we need to review how we address and aid staff to mitigate those problems upfront.”
CHS has disputed Ms Dunne’s assertion in a statement provided to Region Media.
“Hospital security and wards services staff at CHS are both able to physically intervene to de-escalate a situation between a patient and CHS staff,” the statement says.
“Wards services staff, hospital security and clinical staff collaborate closely during situations involving a patient confronting staff.
“They begin with de-escalation measures and if those measures are unsuccessful, hospital security and wards services staff are legally able to use reasonable or necessary force to prevent a patient from injuring themselves or staff.
“In most cases our ward services staff will be the ones to physically intervene, under the direction of clinical staff, should a situation require it.”