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High rates of injury in the disability sector

Paula explores SafeWork Australia’s report on the high rates of serious injury in the Health Care and Social Assistance sector, and what steps providers can take to lower the risks.

By Paula Spencer

Updated 6 May 20244 May 20245 min read
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Support work isn’t just hard work; it can, at times, also be hazardous to one’s health and wellbeing.

SafeWork Australia report that workers within Heath Care and Social Assistance (which includes the disability support sector) sustain significant numbers of serious injuries. In the last reporting period, there were 8.8 serious injuries for every million hours worked. This is compared to 6.5 for all other injuries combined. An injury is classified as serious when the worker is required to be off work for over a week.

If you compare statistics by occupation, you find that community and personal service workers are more likely to suffer an injury than any other occupation other than a laborer. So, it is safer to work as a machine operator, driver or tradie. 

What is causing these injuries?

A scan of SafeWork Australia reports over the years shows that the cause of injuries has not changed much over time, with manual handling, slips trips and falls being the main causes of injuries.

SafeWork Australia list the top 5 causes of injuries for workers in Health Care and Social Assistance sustained as:

  • Body stress
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Being hit by a moving object
  • Mental stress
  • Hitting objects with a part of the body

They list the top 5 injuries workers sustain as:

  • Traumatic joint/ligament and muscle/tendon
  • Muscular and connective tissues
  • Mental health conditions 
  • Wounds, lacerations, and amputations
  • Fractures

When looking only at claims classified as serious, the only change is for No. 5 - where hitting objects is replaced by vehicle accidents.

The tasks workers perform vary significantly across the sector, but we consistently see that manual handling is a major cause of claims for people who work in direct care roles. Many workers are working alone and there are limited resources to implement measures to reduce risk. It is often much easier to automate work in most other sectors. For example, a warehouse may spend a lot of money to automate processes and reduce manual handling risks - and the return on investment is great. However, there is no such one-off fix for an organisation who provides services across multiple sites, with workers often working individually or in small groups.

Slips, trips, and falls are also high on the list. The risk of such incidents increases when supporting people in a home environment, in wet areas such as bathrooms and pools, and out in the community where there is little control over housekeeping.

One area that has seen a steady rise in the number of workers’ compensation claims reported in the last few years is mental stress.

SafeWork Australia have recently released the Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace Data Report (February 2024).

They report that mental health conditions account for an increasing proportion of serious workers’ compensation claims across all sectors.

The bad news is that the Health Care and Social Assistance industry group has the highest number of claims for mental health conditions.

These statistics highlight an emerging risk for the sector.

An upward trend of increasing claims is expected. The report reasons that destigmatisation and an increased awareness of mental health conditions may have contributed to this rise in claims. In other words: this is the new normal.

The report includes survey data which shows that workers in Health Care and Social Assistance roles were exposed to psychological hazards such as high emotional demand, workplace bullying and work-related occupational violence. And we might think - this includes workers in hospitals, so of course the figures are high.

But we can’t put our heads in the sand - many support workers also face psychological hazards in the workplace. In the NDIS Review Building a More Responsive and Supportive Workforce, May 2023, it stated that many NDIS workers are feeling burnt out. We also know that many support workers work alone, with some supporting participants who exhibit behaviours or concern.

As claims rise, so do the consequences, such as increased insurance premiums, a huge impact on the team culture and a loss of workers.

The major impact on a worker compensation premium is the amount of time a worker is off work. The data shows that people who claimed for a mental health condition generally had more time off work and were more likely to report multiple additional injuries.

It also showed that they were much less likely to ever return to work than for any other workplace injuries or illness.

Image description: Graph showing the return to work outcomes for people with mental health injuries v people with other injuries. For people with other injuries, well under 20% did not return to work. For people with mental health injuries, slightly over 20% did not return to workID: Graph showing the return to work outcomes for people with mental health injuries v people with other injuries. For people with other injuries, well under 20% did not return to work. For people with mental health injuries, slightly over 20% did not return to work

Steps can be taken to reduce the risks.

Providers tell us that they focus a lot of time and effort on safeguarding participants and maintaining compliance with the NDIS standards, and at times there is little left in the tank for everything else.

But reducing workplace risk doesn’t need to be expensive or time consuming.

  • Know what hazards your staff face.
  • Ask them for suggestions on how to improve their safety.
  • Consult with staff prior to implementing new safety measures.
  • Confirm safety measures are working as required.

There are some great free resources available from the various work health and safety agencies across Australia. And make sure you also check out the resources from other states or territories.

Here is a list of just some which may be of assistance:

Disability specific

Manual handling

Mental health and wellbeing

Slips, trips, and falls

Workers’ compensation stigma

Resources for workers, supervisors and employers to reduce the likelihood of issues being left unresolved due to workers compensation stigma - Workers’ compensation stigma resources | Safe Work Australia

Working alone/in a participants own home

Workplace violence

To assist you with training, DSC have developed a suite of on demand training which is tailored to the NDIS sector.

This includes the following for support workers:




Paula Spencer

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