Why being a home care worker is a risky business

Australia’s home care sector face concerning injury rates and other complex challenges. New findings suggest comprehensive changes are needed to safeguard worker wellbeing.

Home care workers provide vital support that enables the elderly and people with health issues to continue living safely in their own homes.

Yet disturbing injury statistics reveal these same caregivers are not safe in the workplace.

Up to 20 per cent are injured on the job every year and almost half will endure at least one serious injury during their career.

More than one quarter experience physical or verbal violence at work, and 70 per cent warn they are regularly exposed to badly managed health and safety hazards.

Despite the high rate of injury, Department of Management Professor Herman Tse said only a handful of studies had been conducted to identify the risks.

“We know from the existing studies that home care workers face serious issues such as work-related violence from clients, family members and the general public, musculoskeletal disorders from manual handling, and psychosocial stress and strain-related injuries,” Prof Tse said.

“However, these studies fail to provide a comprehensive understanding of the key health and safety issues associated with their daily work.”

“I felt hopeless, disrespected and stressed’

The shocking statistics come as no surprise to Annie Wu.

A casual home care worker for three different service providers, Annie has suffered two significant injuries in the line of duty.

The first, a twisted ankle and fracture about eight years ago, left her out of work for six months.

Because the company failed to provide proper support, Annie was forced to cover all related expenses herself.

Then, about one year ago, she injured her wrist using a heavy van door while working for a different service, adding to her challenges.

She continues to grapple with long-term physical and psychological effects from both injuries.

“I felt hopeless, disrespected and stressed because I couldn’t work, so I had no money during the recovery,” she said.

“My ankle and wrist are still not properly healed – I can’t work like I used to.”

Research exposes complex challenges

Prof Tse said Annie’s life experience represented some of the hurdles encountered by many home care workers.

“This suggests there is a pressing need for comprehensive changes to ensure the well-being, personal safety and fair treatment of these essential workers,” he said.

To gain a better insight, Prof Tse and his research team conducted a comprehensive review of 49 studies.

The findings reveal home care workers are at risk across multiple dimensions.

They face environmental risks from unclean conditions and exposure to biohazards, and physical risks from activities such as cleaning with harsh chemicals, cooking meals, and lifting clients.

Employer mismanagement leading to unfavourable work conditions like workload imbalances and role conflicts, and emotional strain during events such as clients dying adds another layer of psychological risk.

“Demographic factors including age and ethnicity, service intensity, emphasis on organisational safety management, and societal stereotyping against the value of home care workers collectively shape the risk profile of home care workers,” Prof Tse said.

“These findings are crucial for understanding the multifaceted challenges faced by front-line home care workers, so we can develop strategies and inform regulations to safeguard their wellbeing and safety in their day-to-day work.”

Improving the health and safety of home care workers

Prof Tse said the research indicates well-designed, evidence-based interventions are needed to help change home care workers’ perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours over time.

Next, he hopes to conduct a sector-specific review to address underlying factors like funding shortages and low safety commitment.

“With this first study, the goal was to raise awareness about the issue and elevate recognition of the risks faced by home care workers,” Prof Tse said.

“It’s my hope that I can continue to work on more studies next year to provide comprehensive, evidence-based and innovative solutions that can effectively address this pressing issue.”

Published on 21 Feb 2024