Health, safety message muted in seniors’ care discussion

Given that there are now more seniors in Canada than there are children, The Vancouver Sun’s recent series on seniors’ care was timely, informative and hopefully stimulated conversation with families and government policy-makers. But discussion about the workers who provide care to seniors was lacking. The health and safety of the tens of thousands of continuing care workers in B.C. has a huge impact on seniors’ care and deserves highlighting.

While progress is being made, continuing care workers, who work in long-term care and home care and community health support, have some of the highest injury rates among all occupations in B.C. In long-term care, the rate is eight times the provincial average of all workers, and in home care it’s twice the provincial average. This directly affects the continuity and quality of care for seniors.

Over time, care givers build trust with their residents and clients, and an awareness of their individual needs. Imagine for a moment the impact when there is turnover in staff, because of workplace injuries.

If the physical and social impact of workplace injury isn’t enough, then surely the numbers demand attention. According to WorkSafe B.C., in 2016 alone more than 152,000 work days were lost in continuing care because of injury. That’s like taking away almost 600 full-time staff at a time when the sector is challenged by chronic staffing shortages. And injury claims costs total more than $30 million annually.

Reasons for the high number of injuries are varied — the complexity of care for many seniors is greater than it once was, there is an increase in Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and just the unpredictability of human interaction. Despite the reasons, many workplace injuries are preventable, and the sobering statistics underscore the need for increased health and safety training.

SafeCare B.C. is the health and safety association for more than 29,000 continuing care workers in B.C. We work with employers, unions, and care staff to deliver training and education to help create healthier, safer workplaces. We develop our own and partner with other organizations to deliver training that addresses some of the unique risks that health care workers face while they deliver care. Some of our training programs include violence prevention training, dementia care training, and leadership education. We also work with employers on a one to one basis to provide customized support that addresses their

We hear a lot about staffing shortages in the health sector, and the impact it has on care for seniors. We know that staffing shortages are associated with higher staff turnover, higher rates of burnout and negative effects on workplace health and safety practices. This is why strategies to retain and recruit staff need to consider a reduction in workplace injuries. Organizations that place an emphasis on creating a safe and healthy workplace are the ones that will better be able to attract and keep staff.

For the sake of our seniors today, and for those in the future, it’s critical that we address staffing shortages. Chronic staffing shortages have a direct impact on the quality of care provided, and are linked to poorer client outcomes regarding pressure ulcers, weight loss, and functional ability.

We believe that health and safety training should form a significant component of post-secondary health programs. We are working with the education sector to help empower students to enter the workforce with a mindset and skills related to safe work practices.

Reducing workplace injuries is good for workers and their families and it’s good for those in care.

Saleema Dhalla is Acting CEO of SafeCare B.C.

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