Mental health patients are being shifted to surgical wards at Shellharbour Hospital as staffing shortages see the closure of beds in specialist mental health units.
The Mercury understands that up to seven beds in the 20-bed acute Eloura unit have been closed; and two of the 20 beds in the Mirrabrook mental health unit.
NSW Nurses and Midwives Association general secretary Brett Holmes said forcing the 'overflow' into other wards was not suitable.
"Due to the bed closures, four mental health patients have had to be accommodated in surgical wards, although they have since been removed," he said.
"We will certainly be expressing our concern around the health and safety issues which arise in trying to accommodate mental health patients in wards where staff don't have the experience or expertise in managing a variety of mental illnesses.
"The physical surrounds of these wards are also less than suitable from a safety point of view should unexpected changes in the conditions of patients arise."
Mr Holmes said the union had been working with hospital management for months to ensure adequate staffing, and training, within the mental health service.
He said staff would be holding a union meeting this week over the issue.
"The situation is critical at Shellharbour. There's not enough staff - and there's also not enough staff trained in the prevention and management of violence," he said.
"For instance if you have to restrain a patient for their safety - and the safety of other patients or staff - you need a minimum of six people. There's instances where there's only four available and they don't all have the requisite training.
"So the risks are high of being involved in a potentially violent incident or of being abused - or of being accused of not practicing properly.
"Then staff get investigated, and suspended during that investigation, which only adds to the staffing issues."
A source told the Mercury that the hospital's mental health rehabilitation unit was also being utilised to accommodate overflow, and would soon be at capacity.
This is the unit which will have to accommodate patients from Shoalhaven Hospital's sub-acute mental health unit, when that unit is shut down for three weeks in the Christmas holidays.
Labor's health spokesman Ryan Park said 'cruel cuts' to the health budget were clearly having an impact at local hospitals.
The Keira MP is demanding answers from the Berejiklian government, claiming documents obtained by Labor reveal Treasury is imposing a $252 million budget cut on health across the state this financial year.
"Thanks to this government we have seen our local health district forced to scale back operations in the interest of staff and patient's safety," he said.
"All this will do is place increased pressure on staff who have now been told vital beds are being closed."
Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District executive director mental health Caroline Langston said staff were currently being recruited to manage the workforce gaps with Shellharbour's busy mental health service.
"An unusually high number of people called in sick this week, which is why we have temporarily closed seven beds," she said.
"This decision is not a cost-saving measure. When we are again fully staffed, the service will return to its original configuration. Bed capacity and nursing numbers are reviewed daily."
Ms Langston said it was common practice to accommodate "low risk, voluntary patients with medical or physical care needs" in medical or surgical wards of the hospital.
"The mental health service has high standards in relation to consumer care and safety. In line with NSW Health policy, concerns raised about staff behaviour and performance are investigated thoroughly, with procedural fairness applied."
She said more than 80 per cent of staff within mental health services had completed all violence prevention management training, with the remainder scheduled to complete it this month. Clinical nurse educators also supported staff in the use of de-escalation techniques.
"The recruitment of clinicians is challenging in regional areas across Australia. However we are making progress with our recruitment to the mental health service," she said.
"Three (full-time) nurses are commencing with the service in November and an additional five casual staff are being trained to provide support when full time staff are on leave."
Meantime NSW Health refuted Labor's claims of a Treasury cap for health last month.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Health Minister Brad Hazzard said it was "disappointing and dangerous" that Labor was "peddling misinformation" to those who used mental health services in the region.
"Acute mental health units remain open 365 days a year," the spokesperson said.
"Consumers using sub-acute mental health units, such as Shoalhaven, self-refer and understandably, demand reduces over Christmas when consumers choose to spend time with friends and family which is encouraged.
"Any mental health consumer requiring an inpatient admission to a sub-acute unit over Christmas will be accommodated in the mental health rehabilitation unit at Shellharbour Hospital.
"We are advised one consumer required the service over the festive period last year, and was accommodated."
The spokesperson said the NSW Government was investing a "record $2.1 billion in recurrent funding" in the 2019-20 budget for mental health services.
Meanwhile the annualised budget for the ISLHD was nearly a billion dollars - $998 million - which was a $40 million increase on last year.
The Mental Health Line is open 24/7 on 1800 011 511. Support can also be sought from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 463.