Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) in Aged Care (2023)

Finding it hard to find the right advice on workplace health and safety for aged care? This definitive practical guide would help you identify, manage and prevent risks specific to your business

WHS and Aged Care Homes

Aged care homes are peculiar workplaces. The residents there can't really take care of themselves and they need help thus making care homes a complex and demanding working environment. As a matter of fact, we frequently get requests for help from aged care homes about how to deal with their workplace health and safety issues.

Here is an example:

Let’s assume : There is an aged care home like any other that you would typically find in Sydney. One day, a worker had to take care of an elderly woman when she suddenly became aggressive. The woman used a sharp object to stab her arm and she needed surgery, which meant weeks of recovery and time away from work. A few months later - a doctor while doing a routine health check, slipped and fell on a wet floor. He fractured his wrist and was off work for six weeks because of the injury, which meant he couldn't work.

The two incidents were unrelated but both are examples of the risks and injuries that can happen to workers in aged care.

The moral of the story:

The risk of accidents and injuries is as real for workers in aged care, as it is for any other type of work. And when accidents happen, consequences can include medical bills, time off work and loss of productivity. Add other costs like increased insurance premiums, compensation claims, destruction of properties as well as PR and reputational damage to the equation and it's clear that no aged care facility can afford to ignore the issue of workplace health and safety if they care about their workers, their reputation and the bottom line.

The key to a safe workplace environment is to proactively plan and implement a health and safety program that meets the needs of their facility. This blog post offers advice on how to create an effective, practical and robust workplace health and safety program in aged care.

Let's get started!

Workplace Health and Safety Legislation in Aged Care

If you have been looking for a reason to take your aged care facility's health and safety obligations more seriously, consider the following:

  • The Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 imposes obligations on all employers (Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking) to ensure the safety of their workers
  • The Act applies to the Commonwealth and every other state or territory, which means any organisation (including Aged Care Facilities) that has at least one worker, is obliged to comply with its provisions
  • The Act also imposes general duties on every person at work - workers, contractors, and on every occupier of a workplace.

Duties of Employers and Employees

The duties imposed by the Act on employers are:

  • To provide a safe work environment, including implementing measures to eliminate or minimise risks;
  • to ensure that people at work are provided with information, instruction and training; and
  • to provide first aid and other appropriate medical attention in cases of emergency.
  • For incidents designated as 'notifiable' by the Act, for example, an injury or illness that results in a fatality, employers must give prompt notification of these to relevant regulatory authorities (SafeWork)

The duties imposed by the Act on employees are:

  • To comply with safety rules and procedures
  • To take reasonable care for their own health and safety while at work, including seeking advice from the employer or supervisor about any risks to their health and safety;
  • To report unsafe work practices or any injury, illness or event as soon as possible to the person in charge;
  • To report any injury, illness or event to a health and safety representative (if there is one) as soon as possible;
  • To co-operate with the employer in implementing the workplace safety program.
  • To avoid any act or omission that might risk their own health and safety or the health and safety of other workers.

Employers and employees must also comply with any orders made by the regulator.

Failure to comply:

Aged care facilities like any other organisation, face penalties if they fail to comply with the Act. An employee who breaches his or her duty of care may also be found liable for any injury caused by the breach. Penalties can include fines and orders to pay compensation.

Health and safety policy for Aged Care

Aged care facilities should develop a written health and safety policy that meets the needs of their facility. This document would guide the management, staff and contractors in the implementation of workplace health and safety measures. The policy should cover, among others the following:

  • Purpose
  • Management procedures for health and safety
  • Roles and responsibilities employers, occupiers and contractors
  • Health and safety training
  • Record keeping requirements.

The policy should be reviewed regularly to ensure it is up to date and in line with legislation.

Managing Health and Safety in Aged Care

Risk Assessment

To manage health and safety in aged care, a risk assessment needs to be undertaken. A risk assessment is an evaluation of potential hazards and risks for employees, customers or members of the public on a property. Typically, it is conducted in three stages:

Hazard Identification:

The first stage is to identify the hazards which are present on the property. What is a hazard in aged care? A hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm or injury. It can be physical, chemical, biological or environmental in nature. Physical hazards which may be present in an aged care facility include: Slip/trip hazards on floors or stairs.

Chemical hazards may include household cleaning products, pesticides, and other hazardous materials. Biological hazards may include viruses or bacteria. Environmental hazards are those which arise from the environment such as extreme temperatures, humidity and pollution. The hazard identification process can be done by an aged care provider, without the need to do a full risk assessment or engaging an external consultant. The following measures can be used to identify potential hazards:

  • Walk around inspections of the property;
  • Review of the aged care provider's risk management policy, historical records and incident reports;
  • Employee interviews; and,
  • Investigating manufacturers' safety data sheets

Assess Risk

At this point after the hazards have been identified, the risk associated with each hazard is assessed. So how do you assess workplace health and safety risk in aged care?

A Risk Matrix is a useful tool for this. Risks are ranked on a scale of one to five, with five being the one of utmost concern - a priority. The tool considers 3 factors:

  • The likelihood of the risk event happening;
  • The severity or consequence if it happens; and,
  • The frequency of the risk event

Risk Control

Last, the risk control measures are identified. It is important that these controls reflect a balance of prevention and management (alongside any other mitigating factors). These controls will differ according to the identified risk and any existing policies, procedures or work health and safety regulations. As a general rule in occupational health and safety, risks are controlled using one or more of the following five hierarchies of controls:

  • Elimination - to remove the hazard completely. For instance, if the owner cannot afford to install proper safety equipment, then they may choose to not carry out that particular task at all
  • Substitution - to replace a hazardous material or process with one that is less risky. An example would be using a less hazardous cleaning fluid in an aged care facility
  • Engineering Controls - to reduce the exposure to a hazard through physical modifications to equipment, processes or working conditions. For example, installing a slip resistant floor
  • Administrative Controls - procedures which may not eliminate risk but which reduce the frequency of exposure to it. A typical example is enforcing a shift change every four hours to reduce the chances of fatigue-related injury
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - clothing or equipment which provides protection from a hazard such as gloves and safety eyewear, to protect workers against the risk of injury from exposure to chemicals.

Review and Measure Performance

With control measures in place, it is important to measure and review their effectiveness. The effectiveness of a control measure should be reviewed at least annually, and depending on the frequency with which it is used, its performance may need to be reviewed more frequently. Additionally, assess whether the control measure has been effective in achieving its purpose and if not, why this might be.

The following should be monitored:

  • The number of incidents at the workplace, including near misses and other types of incidents (e.g., falls)
  • Time spent on the control measure, by people and groups
  • Actual expenditure related to a control measure

If you find an issue with a control measure, it is necessary to immediately review and adjust the program.

Consultation on health and safety

It is recommended that the organisation consult with staff on their health and safety issues. This can be done by either engaging in a consultation process before introducing new control measures, or undertaking periodic consultation to review existing health and safety practices. When consulting:

  • Ensure that workers are involved in identifying problems with current practices as well as finding solutions
  • Workers should be allowed to choose representatives to consult with the organisation on health and safety matters
  • It is important for employees to feel comfortable in raising potential problems, as this will allow the business to identify and address them quickly
  • It may be appropriate to consult with external stakeholders, but this should not occur until previous consultation has been undertaken internally

Health and Safety Education, Training and Supervision

Provide employees with training and supervision to develop the knowledge, skills, behaviour and performance in their workplace. The provision of this training is an excellent way to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. For newly hired staff, it is a must that they are given a full induction to ensure they know the health and safety protocols.

It is important for managers to provide training on risk assessments, safe work practices, and the use of personal protective equipment. For more experienced employees it may be appropriate to provide refreshers on health and safety protocols. To identify the areas that need to be covered, it is important that the organisation consults with staff, conduct a Job Safety Analysis and use information from the Risk Assessment. Supervision shouldn't be seen as a tagalong to the provision of training, but rather as an integral part of it.

Supervisors should provide feedback to staff on their performance in relation to health and safety, and should provide feedback to the business on staff health and safety performance. Also, they are responsible for ensuring that people using equipment safely know how to do so, for example by providing regular demonstrations on how equipment is used.

Incident Investigation and Reporting

It is essential that a clear and concise, standardised process for investigating incidents, accidents, and near misses be developed and understood by all staff. This process should be reviewed and revised as needed to balance the need for timely notification with the need for thorough investigation. A key component of incident investigation is the prompt and sensitive reporting to both internal management and external authorities as required by law, such as WorkSafe. Accident investigation would help answer questions such as "What happened?" and "Why did it happen?” It would also help identify the potential cause of accidents that may have been prevented and to identify what can be done to prevent them in the future.

Emergency Plans

Emergency plans are a necessary part of the workplace that provides clear instructions on what to do in the event of an emergency. Emergency drills should be undertaken periodically to ensure that staff are aware of their role and the location of emergency exits. Examples of emergencies that may occur in aged care settings include:

  • Fire, flood or storm warnings
  • A power outage
  • A gas leak or chemical spill that requires evacuation of the building
  • Bomb threat etc.

Emergency plans should include a list of emergency contact numbers and information about the nearest hospital.

First Aid

As part of the provisions of the WHS Act, employers must provide a first aid kit with the necessary supplies to provide emergency health care. The goal of providing first aid is to prevent or reduce further health damage and to relieve suffering until the injured person can be transported to a healthcare facility (if the case demands). First Aid Kits must be easily accessible, and may be stored in a cupboard, cabinet or on a shelf. Staff or an officer tasked with maintaining the kit should be informed of its location.

As a general rule, a first aid kit should contain:

  • Bandages, dressings and plasters
  • Burn relief aids such as salves or ointments
  • Mouth to mouth resuscitation masks
  • Plastic gloves
  • Rubbing alcohol, sterile cotton wool and gauzes
  • Scissors
  • Single use emergency blanket or foil blanket

Co-operation and Co-ordination with contractors

Aged care facilities do not exist in isolation and many of the responsibilities for workplace health and safety are shared with other stakeholders in a community especially contractors. When it comes to contractors, there are some key points that aged care should be aware of. Firstly, many contractors may have their own health and safety standards, which the aged care home should be aware of and make sure they are meeting theirs. Secondly, it is the responsibility of the aged care to inform these contractors of any hazards or risks and ensure that they are aware of the agreed procedures for managing these.

Additionally, it is important to make sure that these contractors are registered with the government and compliant to all relevant legislation. Finally, in situations where both the contractor and the aged care are working side by side, it is important to make sure that there is a synergetic approach to ensuring health and safety.

Examples of Workplace Hazards in Aged Care (And How to deal with them)

Manual Handling

A lot of time, the worker will be moving people who are frail and easily injured. There will also be times where the worker is manipulating heavy weights or objects like wheelchairs and beds that are awkward and tiring to move. When a worker is doing this, they are at risk of injury to their back, shoulders, and joints - this is especially true when they are tired, positioned awkwardly, or unbalanced.

Tips to prevent injury due to manual handling in aged care

  • Mechanical/automated aids and tools should be used to make the work easier.
  • Provide training to all staff on how to manually handle weight, people with reduced mobility and the use appropriate equipment when needed.
  • The worker to be aware of their own limitations and call for help when they need it or take breaks as necessary to give themselves time to recover

Slips, Trips and Falls

Slips, trips and falls are a common occurrence in aged care. It is important to identify the risks that put workers at risk of these events happening, and implement controls to reduce the risk. Some of these include:

  • Wet floors - puddles, spills
  • Floors that are too slippery - oily residues, new finish on the floor
  • Floors that have different levels
  • Carelessly leaving items on the way

Tips for reducing slips, trips and falls in aged care homes

  • Immediately clean and dry floors with spills, puddles or oily residues
  • Use anti slip floor finishes
  • Place warning signs and other signals to identify risks, and make sure that these are communicated effectively to all workers
  • Put up barriers on stairs or ramps with differing levels
  • Keep hallways, corridors, lobbies and other access points well lit
  • Workers should wear slip resistant footwear where necessary

It is important that people are reminded of the need to look after their own safety and avoid things like running in corridors, not wearing shoes in wet areas, or carrying too much at once.

Injuries from sharp objects

It is not uncommon for aged care workers to work with sharp objects such as knives, glassware and needles. It is important as an employer to look out for these types of potential hazards to the workplace:

Tips for preventing injuries from sharp objects:

  • As far as possible use other alternative solutions to using sharp objects
  • Wear protective gloves and clothing to reduce the risk of injuries
  • Workers should be qualified/trained to safely use sharp objects, how to give first aid in the event of an injury
  • Dispose of sharps in a container that is sealed and labelled as biohazards
  • Cover or store dangerous tools when they're not in use. Ensure they are well secured, stored and only accessible by authorized personnel

Violence and Aggression in the workplace

Aged care workers are at risk of being the target or witness to violence in the workplace. Acts such as threatening behaviour, verbal abuse, or physical violence can all have a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of workers.

Preventing violence and aggression in aged care

  • Provide a safe place workers can go to when they are feeling threatened
  • Ensuring that all workers feel comfortable reporting violence; these reports should be taken seriously by management
  • Alarms should be installed in key locations on the property and workers should know how to use them
  • Workers should have training on how to respond when violence occurs in the workplace and what to do if they are a target
  • Workers should be able to recognise warning signs that might indicate violence, such as changes in behaviour, sudden mood swings or increased aggression
  • Provide security in the workplace - this may be staff, external guards or other measures
  • Workers should have access to emergency numbers and know how to call them in an emergency situation

Hazardous Biological Materials

Workers should be aware of hazardous biological materials like blood, saliva and urine. These materials can spread infection from person to person. As part of control measures, employers should:

  • Limit the number of people that can access areas known to be at high risk for contamination.
  • Train staff about the risks and steps they can take to protect themselves against infection.
  • Ensure the vaccination history of staff is known.
  • General house cleaning practice and disposal of soiled items in the appropriate bin should be enforced.
  • Instruct staff on how to appropriately clean and sanitize areas that may have been contaminated

Hazardous Chemicals

A chemical that can cause injury or illness to a person through contact, ingestion, inhalation or exposure is considered hazardous. Examples of such in aged care are: Cleaning chemicals, disinfectants, weed killers, sterilizing agents, and pesticides etc.

Reduce the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals in aged care facilities:

  • Where possible eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals
  • If a hazardous chemical cannot be eliminated, provide personal protective equipment such as gloves and face masks to reduce exposure
  • Provide chemical safety data sheets to staff and provide information about the hazardous chemicals in use at your organisation
  • Employees should be trained in the safe use and disposal of hazardous chemicals
  • Keep containers of such substances closed tightly, store them out of reach of unauthorized personnel, and do not return used containers to the original storage location
  • Ensure chemical containers are labelled correctly using the correct name, grade and date released for use
  • Use a ventilation system with an air-supply and exhaust for toxic fumes
  • Clean up spills immediately
  • Dispose of hazardous substances in accordance with environmental protection requirements.

Stress and fatigue

Stress and fatigue are two common factors that can lead to accidents in the workplace. Major contributors of these factors are: Lack of sleep, lack of time-off and the high demands in a workplace. Aged care workers are required to work shifts and at night. Tips for preventing stress and fatigue:

  • Provide a healthy work-life balance; offer employees time off for rest and recovery
  • Employers should provide a healthy workplace that reduces exposure to stressors such as noise, temperature extremes, and poorly ventilated work areas
  • Provide ergonomically designed furniture; where possible provide rest facilities such as recliners and chairs for employees
  • Provide programs or activities for workers to combat the stresses of aged care and work-life balance such as recreation, leisure and social events
  • Managers should monitor the workload and maintain appropriate staffing level
  • Set up a formal complaint system to allow staff the opportunity to voice their concerns without fear of reprisals or retaliation from management.
  • Encourage employees to take up hobbies outside of their jobs
  • Provide safety training for employees on how to handle the work-related stress they might experience
  • The duties and tasks of each employee should be matched to their competence, interest, experience and qualifications

Workplace Health and Safety Software Solution for Aged Care

There are so many tasks and requirements to meet WHS in aged care. While legislation exists to specify how facilities must comply with health and safety requirements, ensuring they are all followed and adhered to is a different story.

Kiri Align takes the pain out of ensuring compliance by providing a simple and cost-effective health and safety management system. Once in place, you can track all your workplace health and safety requirements with the click of a button. You can send reminders for regular inspections; generate customized reports, get notifications instantly across a range of activities, including medication monitoring, grooming and hygiene. And in-built within the program are training modules that assure employees are up-to-date on the latest health and safety requirements.

With so much you can do with Kiri Align, you might wonder how you ever managed to do without it! The system is easy to learn and setup, yet incredibly powerful and effective. Kiri Align Workplace Health and Safety Software is the best way to get your aged care facility up-to-date with a range of mandatory health and safety requirements in a quick, cost-effective manner.
Don't let health and safety compliance for your aged care cause you any more stress. Sign up for you free trial here.

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