Wollongong Hospital staff tell of abuse

Two support staff working in South Coast hospitals have told of physical and emotional abuse they have experienced while "companioning" aggressive or unstable patients.

A wardsman said he had been "punched, pushed, kicked, head-butted, elbowed, shoulder-charged and more" while undertaking the role, which is usually carried out by trained security staff.

And a wardswoman said she had been "traumatised" when a patient who had attempted to hang himself then tried to jump out a window.

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The Mercury reported on Friday that wardspeople at Wollongong Hospital have now refused to act as companions, although the practice is still occurring at Shoalhaven and Shellharbour hospitals.

The Health Services Union invoked a clause of the Work Health and Safety Act this month to support the Wollongong Hospital workers and is monitoring the situation at the other South Coast hospitals.

The wardsman, who did not want to be named, said the main role of a wardsperson was to assist nursing staff with patient care - such as turning or transporting patients, helping with patient hygiene or cleaning duties.

"When [hospital management] first asked us to do companioning more than 12 months ago, I objected because that was not our role, and we were not trained to do it. But they went ahead anyway.

"It started with elderly patients, then progressed to semi-aggressive patients and then to scheduled mental health patients - that's when all the trouble started."

The wardsman said his colleagues were not able to properly defend themselves, for fear of hurting patients.

"[Management] tell us to retreat, but it's hard to retreat when the patient's jumped on top of you.

"And it's hard to radio for help when you're putting up your arms to defend yourself to stop yourself getting belted," he said.

The wardswoman did not want to discuss specific situations, but said she remained upset by some incidents.

"I love my job - and I need to work - but this is a role that needs two security guards. It's frightening and it's not just because I'm a woman; there're men who are six-foot-four who don't want to do this work on their own."

The union said the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District was the only district where wardspeople undertook companioning - elsewhere in the state, trained security or nursing staff were used.

"This policy is putting our members' physical security and health in jeopardy," NSW secretary Gerard Hayes said.

A Wollongong Hospital spokeswoman said management continued to work with the union and the Industrial Relations Commission to seek a satisfactory outcome.