26 April 2022

WorkSafe notices issued to Dhulwa Mental Health Unit; union slams government's 'appalling' response

| Lottie Twyford
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Dhulwa mental health facility

Nurses working at the secure mental health facility Dhulwa say violent incidents have escalated over the past six months. Photo: Google Maps.

The Territory’s workplace safety regulator has issued improvement and prohibition notices to the Dhulwa Mental Health Unit after reports of escalating violence and assaults in recent months.

The issuing of the WorkSafe ACT notices to Canberra Health Services last Friday has renewed calls from the nurses’ union for an independent inquiry into the facility.

On the same day the notices were issued, it’s understood a nurse was involved in an incident involving a door closing on his finger after a patient became aggressive.

The person in question remains in hospital with a partially severed and degloved finger. It is not known if his finger can be saved.

Matthew Daniel

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation ACT branch secretary Matthew Daniel said the government had failed to keep workers at Dhulwa safe. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation ACT branch secretary Matthew Daniel said nurses working at the unit had reported they were afraid to attend work.

“They say they are short-tempered with their own family because they are so stressed with the situation Dhulwa, and not only are they concerned about their own safety but that of other patients in the facility, as well as visitors,” Mr Daniel said.

“Nurses are worried that if they rotate to other units within the mental health area that will just mean other nurses come in and get subjected to occupational violence.”

The union aired serious concerns about Dhulwa earlier this month when it revealed that over 100 assaults had been reported in six months, and one nurse likened going to work to “being sent into the killing fields”.

It had then called on the government to investigate the unit’s “rotten culture”, which it did not heed.

Mr Daniel said yesterday (20 April) he was disappointed in the government’s response so far, and the union continued to call for an inquiry.

He suggested it was not necessarily a staffing or resourcing issue, but there could be issues around how the Human Rights Act is enacted.

“It seems to have supremacy over the Work Health and Safety legislation,” he noted. “We need an inquiry to get to the bottom of [this]”.

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In Question Time on 6 April, Minister for Mental Health Emma Davidson suggested she would like to talk to the union, which “had [her] number and should call [her] maybe”.

Mr Daniel described the comments as “pretty appalling”.

He also refuted claims he had not met with the minister. He said there had been multiple meetings in March between the two parties and nurses themselves and that he had personally spoken to her on the phone only one hour prior to her making those comments in the Assembly.

“[The Minister] is playing pure politics and protecting her job and not the nurses,” he said.

“I don’t hear an apology. I don’t hear anyone saying to nurses ‘we’re sorry this happened to you and the regulator’s improvement and prohibition notices tell us we got it wrong’.

“These are damaging findings by the safety regulator and the Minister and those responsible for the management of Dhulwa must not escape scrutiny,” Mr Daniel said.

Emma Davidson speaking into microphone

ACT Minister for Mental Health Emma Davidson said she would welcome a conversation with the union to talk about what could be done. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Ms Davidson yesterday said the government was doing everything it could to improve the nurses’ workplace.

She did not rule out conducting an inquiry into the operations of Dhulwa but said she needed to speak with the nurses’ union first, implying these conversations had not, in fact, taken place.

“I would like to have a conversation with the union about what an inquiry would look like and how it can best address the needs of the nurses … to make sure that any inquiry or review we conduct meets [their] needs,” she said.

She would not apologise to those nurses who have been injured while at work. Instead, she acknowledged that Dhulwa is a “high-risk” and “complex” work environment.

Ms Davidson did confirm she had met with nurses who worked at Dhulwa.

Elizabeth Lee with Matthew Daniel

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee supported the nurses’ union’s calls for an independent inquiry into the operations at the facility. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee spoke in support of Mr Daniel’s calls for an independent inquiry into the operations of the unit.

She described it as unacceptable that the government had stood by and let the situation worsen at the facility. She described Ms Davidson’s comments in the Assembly as both “reprehensible” and “beyond the pale”.

“The buck stops with the Minister … she’s either completely delusional or is absolutely showing no respect for our hard-working nurses.”

Executive director of Nursing Midwifery at Canberra Health Services (CHS) Karen Grace said several key initiatives had already been introduced at the facility, including a ‘safety huddle’ at the clinical handover at the end of every shift.

She said that dynamic risk assessments would also be conducted before any high-risk intervention with a patient.

Ms Grace did apologise to any nurse who had been injured at work.

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