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The health and safety of medical professionals was centre stage when COVID 19 outbreaks started happening in Aged-Care and Health Care facilities last year. Nationally, hospitals, clinics and health care centres were grappling with a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that halted all elective surgeries for months.  Meanwhile, a huge demand for additional staffing resources, particularly in the Aged Care sector, saw recruitment agencies thrust into the centre of the resourcing response and WHS challenge.

In June 2020, the Federal Government wrote to Aged Care providers, with a stark warning that they should be prepared for the possibility that 80-100% of their workforce might have to isolate in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak in one of their centres. This advice was consistent with the experience of a significant number of Aged Care facilities in Melbourne during the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria.  To assist, the Government established a new support scheme for Aged Care facilities to enhance their access to a temporary surge workforce.

Members of RCSA, including Aussie Locums, were some of the first participants in the Australian Government’s Temporary Surge Workforce Support initiative, providing work-ready, qualified and skilled medical professionals to the Aged Care sector to support continuity of critical care and support services.

Nichole Fitzgerald, Director of Aussie Locums has been working closely with Amy Towers, a leading Work Health Safety consultant, since 2019, to ensure Aussie Locums’ team provide expert guidance and support to their clients on Work Health and Safety considerations and planning. So, when Aussie Locums began to engage with the Temporary Surge Workforce initiative, Nichole was able to draw on this expertise to work with Aged Care providers to identify and address areas of concern that could potentially lead to unsafe practice or put staff at risk.

Recruitment agencies and their responsibility to keep you safe

It is a common misconception that the responsibility of Workplace Health and Safety lies solely with a worker and the operator of the workplace in which they work.  In on-hire scenarios, recruitment agencies, as the employer of on-hire workers, have clear responsibilities and liabilities in relation to the safety of their employees at work.

Safe Work Australia outline duties for business owners and workplaces in complying with their health and safety responsibilities in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. The Act allows for more than one responsible party in relation to workplace health and safety, and makes it clear that in an on-hire scenario, recruitment agencies are equally responsible for the health and safety of their worker as the business that runs the workplace where the candidate is placed.

Candidates and clients may not normally associate recruitment agencies with having a responsibility for compliance with WHS practices, but the fact is, they do. This is particularly true when on-hire staff (or locums) are working at a client’s site on a temporary assignment.

Aussie Locums, alongside other leaders in the recruitment industry, not only understand their obligation to comply with the law, but harbour an enduring motivation to ensure their candidates and clients conduct their day to day business safely. It is not simply a responsibility that is required by law, it is one that we own through our passion and care for our clients and candidates   It is this that motivates us to work with them to prioritise work health and safety and to drive higher standards of care. Internally referred to as ‘candidate care’, the intention is to keep everyone safe.

When a candidate begins a new assignment, the team at Aussie Locums has already worked with the client to ensure relevant systems are in place, including agreed induction plans and terms of engagement. Built into the process, is a commitment to candidates to deliver a professional, personable and efficient service. The work involved in providing detailed briefs and maintaining regular contact, also helps support the strong rapport we build with our candidates. That relationship means Aussie Locums is better placed to quickly identify any irregularities; whether that is a lack of sufficient breaks, excessive overtime, or other changes to the scope of work that can impact the safety of all parties. Regular follow ups to both the client and the candidate are conducted to ensure these issues do not go unnoticed and help all parties continue to identify and mitigate potential risks as they emerge.

Recruitment agencies must comply with the Work Health & Safety Act 2011 and, like any other employer, are subject to penalties if they fail to do so. The added complexities of the on-hire relationship means Aussie Locums needs to collaborate effectively with clients and candidates to reduce risks and to deliver an exceptional level of care to everyone.

For Aussie Locums, the Aged Care Surge Workforce Program clearly demonstrated the diversity of understanding and attention that exists among employers and workplaces when it comes to Workplace Health and Safety.   It was heartening to see that there were a number of workplaces that had clearly operationalised and prioritised work health and safety onsite.  It was also a reminder however, that not every workplace fully understands their obligations on employee safety and can sometimes lack processes and systems designed to keep workers safe.

It also highlighted the significant value – for both clients and candidates – of a working with a recruitment agency that has experience and expertise in workplace health and safety.  It meant that in circumstances where systems and processes weren’t as robust, Aussie Locums worked collaboratively to drive better outcomes which supported not only our staff, but staff directly employed at those sites as well.

Collaborating with industry to raise the bar on WHS

Aussie Locums, along with a large number of other recruitment agencies, participated in the Surge Workforce through RCSA’s Surge Workforce Program. The program ‘matched’ staffing firms with aged care facilities who had surge workforce needs and the firms then worked directly with those facilities, engaging them as clients.

When Aussie Locums first began working through the program, Director, Nichole Fitzgerald sometimes found it difficult to access information she needed from some facilities to ensure Aussie Locums could meet their duty of care under the model WHS Act. In some instances, entire staffing teams were quarantined, which meant that the ability to share information and work in consultation with the relevant person at the workplace became very challenging.

On one hand, recruitment agencies were being asked to support critical services that needed medical professionals at short notice and with exceptional speed, yet on the other, they still had significant obligations to meet under the WHS Act and the circumstances made it challenging to ensure that agencies, candidates and patients were protected in these unique circumstances.

Aussie Locums worked with RCSA and other providers to bring attention to these challenges and to work collaboratively to address them. The RCSA convened a taskforce, designed to elevate and address these challenges, working with representatives from the Federal Department of Health, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, WorkSafe Victoria, the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, the Australian Nursing Federation, Leading Age Services Australia and Aged and Community Services Victoria.

WHS consultant Amy Towers led the consultation with regulators on behalf of the recruitment industry.  Amy has worked with RCSA and its members for over 12 years delivering training and workshops as well as developing policies and procedures and provided a central point for the industry to raise issues around managing WHS through the challenging climate.  Amy worked with RCSA members to understand and document any concerns and to share them with the taskforce, as well as to share information from taskforce sessions back with those members.  In addition, Amy and RCSA continued to work with agencies and provide guidance materials and information to remind firms of the importance of prioritising the health and safety of on-hire healthcare workers during COVID-19 and to support them in doing so.  Issuing guidance for recruitment agencies was vital so that they could implement WHS emergency plans that would help them remain compliant from supply of PPE, through to safe working hours for candidates.

Over the duration of the Surge Workforce initiative over 20,000 shifts were placed by 100 recruitment agencies.

WHS under a microscope

Awareness of WHS and the responsibilities of recruitment agencies has been amplified by COVID, but the need to be compliant doesn’t disappear when COVID does. Agencies such as Aussie Locums, in collaboration with the RCSA and experts such as Amy Towers, are making it their mission to continually raise the bar. Working with members and clients, the industry is ensuring clients and candidates come to expect recruitment agencies to check and contribute to the health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace.