Australia’s peak health and safety professional body has welcomed changes from the Victorian Government that will better protect healthcare workers but says they have not gone far enough.
Yesterday, the Victorian Government announced that 70 to 80 per cent of healthcare workers who have COVID-19 caught it at work. This is up from initial estimates of 20 to 30 per cent last week.
The Australian Institute of Health and Safety has been urging new approaches to mitigate the risk of worker infection since June.
AIHS chairwoman Naomi Kemp said today, “we welcome the new focus, but the new measures to address the issues in our health sector do not go nearly far enough, and basic health and safety practice is still being ignored.”
More than 2,500 frontline workers have been infected since the start of the pandemic. The failure to use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety standards is now a major contributing factor to the high infection rates of workers, patients and residents of hospitals and aged care facilities.
“Worker transmission of COVID-19 continues to the major blind spot for the expert panels advising governments across Australia,” Ms Kemp said today. “This is partly because they don’t have any workplace health and safety representation on these panels, and the state health and safety regulatory bodies have been sidelined.”
The Victorian Government announced workers will have greater access to P2/N95 masks in emergency departments, intensive care units, aged care facilities and COVID-19 wards but they will not be fit tested.
Ms Kemp described this as simply irresponsible. “These decisions are being made by panels which do not understand the available science on the use of P2/N95 masks.”
“Fit testing is not a nice thing to try. There doesn’t need to be a pilot, there is existing research that shows P2/N95 masks will only have limited success unless properly fit-tested for each person. Fit-testing more than doubles the effectiveness of these masks.”
The Victorian Government has asked all healthcare facilities to have designated spotters to monitor the proper use of personal protective equipment, but this is not enough. This is a weak health and safety control when a stronger control is readily applicable in the form of proper fit-testing.
The AIHS is calling again on WorkSafe Victoria to take a stronger leadership role, to be on the ground to fulfil its full role in hospitals and aged care.
“We believe large numbers of healthcare services have been in breach of health and safety legislation, and little or nothing still appears to have been done about it,” Ms. Kemp said.
“The workplace – especially health and aged care – is the highest level of risk to workers and our community in in COVID-19 outbreak. WorkSafe Victoria is the single most important agency for the prevention of workplace COVID-19 deaths. They appear to be ceding that responsibility to a health department which has a blind spot for worker health and safety.”
The AIHS is concerned that the rest of the country is still not focused on this issue.
“If other States and Territories do not learn these Victorian lessons now, they will be next to experience preventable deaths of both workers and vulnerable users of healthcare and aged care services,” Ms. Kemp said.
“This is a workplace issue and health authorities have not full understood the issue in that context. Across Australia, expert advisory panels urgently need worker health and safety professional expertise as well as representation from WorkSafe agencies. Nothing will change until the advisory panels include and respond to this input.”
Chair Australian Institute of Health & Safety
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.