Employers Duty of Care to Social Care Workers

Many of the Social Care Workers I’ve spoken to in the last few months have told me that they have been subject to physical violence at work. This led to me thinking about employers’ duty of care and the report on this issue published by Social Care Ireland 5 years ago.

This study by Keogh & Byrne in 2016 explored the extent of workplace related violence experienced by Social Care Workers in residential Disability Services. This study found that 24% of participants reported daily, 40% reported weekly and 28% reported monthly workplace violence and that nearly all the participants felt that workplace violence was under reported. What is the employer’s responsibility to employees here?

There is a lot of statutory regulation around occupational safety with a large emphasis in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 on having risk assessments for hazards. I am aware from my past experiences and my work as a consultant, mentor, lecturer and academic tutor to students on placement in the social care field that risk assessments for challenging behaviour are common in the field but there must be more to it than that.

Aside from legislation, employers owe a duty of care by law to employees to protect them from harm. This duty has four aspects:

1.      Place of work; the physical environment must be safe, including buildings.

2.      System of work; employers must take care in the design and implementation or operation of work practices to ensure they are safe. This includes rosters, work tasks, procedures and processes. In the case of a workplace with moderate to high risk of workplace violence, this could include behaviour supports for service users as well as training and supervision for employees.

3.      Equipment; must be suitable for the work and maintained in proper condition.

4.      Competent co-workers: the selection of personnel must take into account qualifications and experience for the role when employing someone who will be in a position to potentially put others at risk. This includes any temporary or relief staff on duty.

If the employer breaches their duty of care which results in damage or injury to an employee which was reasonably foreseeable, the employer is open to a claim for negligence under tort law. It is interesting then, given the high levels of workplace violence reported in the Social Care Ireland study, that we don’t hear of many employer negligence cases brought before the courts from the social care field.

Is this because Social Care Workers are conditioned to believe that a certain level of violence is part of the job description, or that they’ve become immune to it? It is clear to me from my work with Social Care Workers that low levels of violence such as verbal abuse is not even considered as violence to many social care workers who dismiss it as nothing and may not report it or seek support. Although I'm keenly aware of the causes of this, I would encourage the reporting of all forms of workplace violence.

(click here for the report in full)