The Chief Executive of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety, David Clarke today called for immediate reform of the Commonwealth Government’s Infection Control Expert Group, (ICEG) after two of its members blamed ‘apathetic’ healthcare workers’ for the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals, and called concerns about airborne transmission ‘hysterical’.
Mr Clarke said the comments were ignorant, arrogant and show how out-of-touch with reality the ICEG is. “These comments don’t just sit in isolation. A coalition of expert organisations has been trying for months to bring to the attention of the ICEG the fact that critically important workplace health and safety practices are all but missing in many hospitals. The ICEG has completely ignored the advice. To demonstrate just how little they understand about what is happening on the ground, they are now blaming the victims: more than 2100 nurses who were infected in the COVID-19 outbreak.’
Mr Clarke explained that “In Victoria, with only 800 infections a day at the peak, we experienced partial closures of our largest hospitals – the healthcare system was failing. Why? Because more than 2100 of those infections were frontline nurses, themselves going on to infect thousands of others. Those nurses were not infected because they were lazy. They were infected because the hospitals did not apply the proper health and safety controls to protect them. The guidance on those controls comes in part from groups like the ICEG. The comments from ICEG members represent a total failure to understand the responsibilities of the ICEG, to adopt that responsibility, and to accept that the advice it was providing was inadequate. “
Mr Clarke said “We have serious problems with the culture of hospitals when it comes to worker health and safety. Those problems have been laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis, and they cannot get solved unless they are acknowledged. The comments from the ICEG reflect the same hubris and lack of understanding throughout the healthcare system about this issue.”
Mr Clarke explained that “The notion that workplace health and safety in hospitals is good, is a myth. Many hospitals have lower-paid staff working in health and safety without expert knowledge, no overarching WHS management system, little or any health and safety governance focus by hospital boards, little or no metrics/measurements which demonstrate WHS performance, poor staff training, poor staff consultative measures, poor communications with staff, to name just a few. The problem is not lazy or hysterical workers: its lazy comments from ICEG representatives, and poor health and safety leadership in hospitals.”
“On the matter of aerosol transmission, there is no hysteria: there is concern. That concern is with an ICEG that does not understand risk and how to respond to it. We already have other high-risk industries across Australia understanding COVID-19 aerosol risk, and enacting resulting risk reduction measures designed to re-engineer to improve ventilation, rates of air exchange in indoor environments, the numbers of people in confined spaces, and the management of human traffic. The ICEG are amongst the last groups in the country to recognise the bleeding obvious – aerosol transmission is a risk, and it was the cause of an unknown number of hospital infections – unknown, because it was not acknowledged and assessed.”
Mr Clarke warned that the issue is still not properly resolved. “The health and safety of workers in hospitals is fundamental to how we cope with an outbreak. It can have a major impact on the length of the outbreak, and its social and economic impact. Given the state of worker health and safety in hospitals, it’s no surprise that we had a crisis of healthcare worker infections in Victoria, and if other outbreaks put significant numbers of COVID patients into hospitals, the problem will be repeated – because the ICEG and other infection control groups do not yet properly understand the problem.”
Mr Clarke called for the commonwealth to review and re-structure the ICEG, and also called on all state and territory governments to identify selected workplaces as high risk for transmission, and add workplace health and safety expertise to their COVID-19 health taskforces as well as giving health and safety regulators a stronger role.
Mr Clarke said “The Victorian Government, to its credit, set up the healthcare worker task force, and that group has now recognised the need to address issues of hospital health and safety culture. The ICEG needs to take a leaf out of their book.”
“Outside of the general public lockdown measures, the single most powerful thing we can do to prevent the severity of any future COVID-19 outbreak – especially if we end up with hospitalisations – is to properly protect healthcare workers. The ICEG needs to get its act together on this issue instead of deflecting from its own failures.”
AIHS Contact: Rebecca Turnbull
Tel. (03) 8336 1995
About the AIHS: with a more than 70-year history, the Australian Institute of Health & Safety is Australia’s national association for the health and safety profession, with a vision for safe and healthy people in productive workplaces and communities.