Hospital staff bashed, spat on: whistleblower

Support workers at Illawarra and Shoalhaven hospitals have been "assaulted, abused and spat on" as they carry out a role usually undertaken by trained security staff.

The wardspersons at Wollongong Hospital have now refused to carry out "companioning" tasks, with their union invoking a clause of the Work Health and Safety Act this month to protect them.

According to the Health Services Union, wardspersons in the region had complained of physical and verbal abuse when forced to perform companioning - where a staff member has to sit with a patient and observe them.

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The HSU said these staff, who mainly provide non-clinical support such as transporting patients, were not trained to undertake companioning, particularly for mental health and dementia patients.

"Illawarra hospital staff are at serious physical risk due to the policies that have been imposed on them by an ever-shrinking budget," HSU NSW secretary Gerard Hayes said.

"We are seeking the urgent intervention of the local Kiama MP Gareth Ward to resolve this issue.

"Mr Ward has a direct line to the Premier. He needs to pick up the phone, make an appointment and get this mess fixed.

"This policy is putting our members' physical security and health in jeopardy. It's unacceptable and a solution must be found immediately."

A whistleblower contacted the Mercury about the issue this week, claiming the situation was untenable.

"[Wardspersons] are being assaulted, abused and spat on," the source said. "One poor lady working as a wardsperson had to watch a patient who tried to hang himself in the shower.

"The nurses came in and stopped him and put him back to bed ... 15 minutes later the same person tried to jump out [of the window]. Lucky security stopped him ... this has really affected her because she has no training."

According to the HSU, the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District (ISLHD) is the only district in NSW where companioning has been undertaken by wardspersons, and it has been going on for 12 months.

The "norm" across the state is for police or hospital security officers to "companion" the most violent or aggressive patients, while health and security assistants deal with less aggressive patients, and assistants in nursing companion non-aggressive patients.

The HSU believes the ISLHD needs to employ more security staff who are trained at this task.

The whistleblower told the Mercury that though the cease-work order had stopped the practice for the time being at Wollongong Hospital, it was still occurring at Shellharbour and Shoalhaven hospitals.

"[These] hospitals are still using untrained and unlicensed wardspersons to look after three to five dementia patients at the same time due to staff shortages," the source said.

An HSU spokesman said the union was monitoring the situation at the two southern hospitals. He said 17 wardspersons were employed at Wollongong Hospital, with 12 each at Shellharbour and Shoalhaven.

A Wollongong Hospital spokeswoman said hospital management had been in discussions for some time with the HSU about the type of work undertaken by wardspersons.

She said the hospital would continue to work with the union and the Industrial Relations Commission to determine a satisfactory outcome.

"The task of companioning is varied. It's where staff provide appropriate supervision for certain patients," she said.

"For example, with an increase in ageing patients presenting to hospital, there are times when confused elderly patients may require a 'companion' to sit with them to ensure their safety.

"The needs of a patient who may require companioning are comprehensively assessed before an appropriate member of staff is assigned.

"The care and safety of patients, as well as the health, safety and well-being of all staff providing care and assistance to our patients, is paramount."

The spokeswoman said interim measures had been put into place to ensure that companioning continued where required.

Kiama MP Gareth Ward said he was happy to meet the union or staff to discuss the issues.