Our frontline emergency workers deserve to be safe at work

20 September 2022

Ms JODIE HARRISON (Charlestown): I make a contribution to debate on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Assaults on Frontline Emergency and Health Workers) Bill 2022. Like my colleagues on this side of the House, I support the bill because our frontline emergency workers deserve to be safe at work. Our police, paramedics, emergency department staff and volunteer emergency workers put themselves on the line in difficult jobs, and they must never be assaulted in their work. Assaults on frontline workers are distressingly common, however.

A 2021 position statement from the Australian College of Nursing reported that up to 95 per cent of healthcare workers have experienced a verbal or physical assault. In 2019 a female paramedic was punched in the ribs while attending a call-out in Newcastle. She was attending to a 32-year-old patient in the back of the ambulance when he assaulted her en route to the Mater hospital. In 2021 paramedics were assaulted after attending a call at a home on Edward Street in Cardiff. A 25-year-old who had injured his shoulder became aggressive and verbally abusive before shoving a paramedic and damaging the door of the ambulance as they drove away.

I note that the bill comes after a review by the Sentencing Council, which found that the law as it stands does not adequately recognise violence against frontline health workers. The council recommended introducing new offences into the Crimes Act to address these assaults and provide ways to improve the clarity, consistency and coverage of the existing offences for assaults against law enforcement officers. The bill will expand the protections currently in place for police officers, aligning with the existing offences in section 60 of the Crimes Act. The bill also strengthens penalties for harming or hindering law enforcement officers or frontline emergency or health workers during public disorder, and it inserts penalties for hindering or resisting a police officer, a law enforcement officer, or frontline health or emergency worker in the execution of their duty.

I note that the bill expands the definition of "law enforcement officer" to include corrections and detention centre staff and it expands the definition of "public disorder" to include riots or civil disturbances at correctional centres and detention centres. It defines "frontline emergency worker" to include a member of emergency services organisations who provides emergency or rescue services beyond the NSW Police Force and the ambulance service, including the fire service, Fire and Rescue NSW, the SES, Surf Life Saving NSW, the Volunteer Rescue Association and Volunteer Marine Rescue NSW, as well as employees of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Corporation while undertaking firefighting activities.

I further note that the bill extends the definition of "frontline health worker" beyond hospital workers to include members of the ambulance service, workers and volunteers who provide medical care, including the St John Ambulance service and other organisations; community first responders where such services are defined as rendering emergency aid to sick or injured persons; and pharmacy staff, including pharmacists, assistants and other staff. It includes community health service workers and, crucially, security staff in hospitals or other health institutions. The bill also aims to extend these protections to emergency workers even when they are not clocked on. For instance, if an off-duty paramedic was to witness a car accident, run over to assist an injured person and be assaulted by a bystander, the offences introduced by this bill would apply to the perpetrator. This is certainly a worthy inclusion in the bill, ensuring that the skills, the expertise and the selflessness of our frontline workers is respected, whether or not they are on duty, when they step up to do their jobs.

In short, the bill aims to protect frontline workers—the people who protect the lives, the safety and the wellbeing of this State and its citizens—from violence by serving as a deterrent. I hope that the bill does act as a deterrent and that potential offenders, knowing they will face up to 14 years in prison, do not commit assault in the first place. But let us keep in mind that in many situations frontline workers, particularly in the health space, are not dealing with people who are in any position to consider the consequences of their actions. People with learning difficulties or cognitive deficits, people in the middle of a mental health crisis and those under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol can be perpetrators of assaults on frontline health workers. A report entitledViolence in Nursing and Midwifery in NSW from the NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association and the University of Technology Sydney authored by Dr Jacqui Pich stated:

Patients who presented with substance misuse, mental health issues, alcohol intoxication and/or cognitive impairment were perceived by participants of the study to be of highest risk for potential violence.

Take the case of an assault at the Calvary Mater Hospital in April. A 32-year-old patient assaulted four nurses in the span of just a few minutes. One of the victims, a junior nurse, resigned her position just a few days later—and we know how desperately our nurses are needed at the moment.The Newcastle Herald reported that sources within the hospital said that the patient was aggressive and agitated when he was placed in subacute care without close supervision. He should have been placed in a resuscitation bay or in acute care with proper supervision and somewhere that there was space to escape from. Instead, he was tucked in a back corner of the emergency department because the staff were too overworked and too under-resourced to supervise him properly.

This speaks to a more deep-seated issue than there simply not being harsh enough consequences for committing assault. In a workplace where violence is so common, there needs to be an understanding of its prevalence and a long, hard think about how to address it, not just by punishing perpetrators after incidents occur but by doing everything possible to prevent them from occurring in the first place. We should absolutely hold to account the perpetrators of violence against workers who put themselves and their family life second so that they can put the community first. Offenders should be investigated, they should be prosecuted and, if found guilty, they should be punished. But we should not act as if legislation such as this will fix the problem completely, particularly in the context of frontline healthcare workers in our hospitals and ambulance service.

Right now, we are seeing some of the worst statistics we have ever seen in our health system, as revealed in the most recent round of figures from the Bureau of Health Information. Nearly half of patients with the highest category emergency did not start treatment on time. It is the worst result on record. One in 10 emergency department patients spent longer than 21 hours and 16 minutes in the emergency department—the longest wait on record. Across New South Wales, from April to June this year, one in 10 patients left emergency without seeking treatment. That is 76,117 patients who walked out—the highest number on record and an increase of 68 per cent in just three years. Unsurprisingly, one in five of those who left had to re-present within 72 hours. Those figures are not just in our hospitals. The percentage of ambulance call-out responses for life-threatening cases that fell within the 10-minute response benchmark was 57.6 per cent, which is the lowest on record. Almost half of patients with the highest category emergency, which is to say patients who require immediate help, did not start—

Mr Mark Speakman: Point of order—

TEMPORARY SPEAKER (Mr David Layzell): The Clerk will stop the clock.

Mr Mark Speakman: My point of order is about relevance. This is not relevant to a debate about assaults on emergency services workers and appropriate criminal sanctions for those assaults.

TEMPORARY SPEAKER (Mr David Layzell): I ask the member for Charlestown to come back to the substance of the bill.

Ms JODIE HARRISON: To the point of order: What I am raising goes to the relevance of the criminality and the intent of people who are referred to in the bill.

TEMPORARY SPEAKER (Mr David Layzell): The member for Charlestown may continue.

Ms JODIE HARRISON: None of this excuses assault, but when the staff are so overwhelmed that these are the outcomes, they simply do not have the capability to keep an eye on everyone they need to keep an eye on and then situations escalate, as they did at the Mater in April. Our hardworking frontline emergency and health workers—the people who put themselves on the line to help others in dire circumstances—deserve so much better than a system that is stretched to its absolute limits. They definitely deserve to be kept safe while doing their vital work. While I do not oppose the bill and I do not oppose the intent of the bill, I think we should be looking at the whole system and what needs to be fixed. I join my colleagues in not opposing the bill.