A study led by researchers at the University of Auckland looked at the working conditions of seventeen residential aged care facilities. It compared environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, noise and lighting in nurse offices and resident lounges with international standards and found that temperature and lighting levels failed to comply.

Exposure to thermal discomfort and dim lighting can affect the health of workers and lead to fatigue, concentration difficulty and work-related diseases such as cold and muscle tensions. The researchers note that this can lead to higher absenteeism which in turn correlates to poor nursing care quality for residents.

The findings resonate with David Wait from the nurses’ union NZNO.  Wait points to last summer in Wellington when many workers from aged care workplaces raised issues about the heat.

“A combination of old facilities with no or poor cooling, uniforms that don’t breath and facilities setting environment heating temperatures warm all impacting on staff.”

“NZNO and E tū were successful in getting air-conditioning replaced in the kitchen in one facility, whilst carers and residents were offered cool ice bars.”

Alastair Duncan from union E tū agrees temperature is often an issue, particularly with laundry and kitchen workers. But he says poor workplace conditions go beyond these factors.

“For decades members have been expressing concerns around work-related illness and the high incidence of transfer from resident to staff. This goes beyond the obvious noora virus outbreaks and includes exposure to sputum, faeces and spit.”

“The fact that nearly all care and support workers today get ten days sick leave came after more than a decade of pressing employees to lift sick leave entitlements.”

Duncan points to E tū’s In Safe Hands campaign which promotes safe and mandatory staffing levels – and ensures that cover for all absences, such as sick leave, is arranged.

“All too often member report being asked to work short staffed and double shifts. That’s not good for them or the residents.”

Wait agrees staffing levels are the biggest problem with aged care workplaces.

“Aged care workers are under intense pressure with staffing levels that are out of date, do not allow staff to provide quality care and often result in staff working through breaks just to try and get things done. Ensuring staffing levels and skill mix which provide quality care and a safe working environment is the most important step that can be taken to address health and safety concerns of care staff within the sector,” says Wait.

“I would like to see village and care home operators move away from competing on celebrity chefs to competing on having the highest staff: resident ratios in the land,” adds Duncan.

The study, Workplace environment for nurses and healthcare assistants in residential aged care facilities in New Zealand, is published in the Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing.

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