Improvements to workplace safety for nurses working in regional and remote areas urgently needed 

22 September 2021

The literature review undertaken by registered nurse and researcher Laura Wright from James Cook University’s Murtupuni Centre for Rural and Remote Health found that recommendations from research on Remote Area Nurses (RANs) workplace safety dating back as far as 1995 had not been implemented.

Ms Wright suggested the outcomes were likely due to a lack of funding and resources.

“It’s a problem for remote health in general. It’s a really resource-poor environment, you’re trying to provide a service in extremely remote settings, and that can be expensive,” Ms Wright said.

“Understaffing and high staff turnover has been a huge problem in remote health for a long time,” she said.

In 2016 the tragic murder of South Australian nurse Gayle Woodford placed a renewed emphasis on the safety of Remote Area Nurses.

Following her murder, the ANMF (SA Branch) campaigned vigorously with Ms Woodford’s family for three years for new legislation to protect nurses working in remote areas.

Ms Woodford was lured from her property in the small South Australian Outback community of Fregon by convicted sex offender Dudley Davey, who had claimed that his grandmother needed medical assistance. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder, with a non-parole period of 32 years.

Following robust campaigning from the ANMF (SA Branch), our members and Ms Woodford’s family, the State Parliament passed Gayle’s Law in November 2019, which legislated that no remote area health professional attend after-hours emergency callouts alone.

In April, the Deputy State Coroner recommended that this be extended to nurses being accompanied at all times.

His inquest into Ms Woodford’s death also recommended serious repeat offenders be banned from South Australia’s AYP Lands and that police should be stationed in the Far North town of Fregon.

While South Australia has implemented new laws to protect RANs in the wake of Ms Woodford’s death, the rest of the country has yet to follow suit. No other Australian state or territory had legislated similar safety measures, although some have safety guidelines for RANs.

According to the review, the last published research on workplace safety, which charted a marked increase in violence against RANs, came more than a decade ago. A 2017 report showed that 25% of RANs still don’t have access to safe workplaces or accommodation.

Ms Wright said some of the more recent safety recommendations looked at what could be done with existing resources, such as requiring patients to present to the clinic after hours and not staff accommodation, having a nurse notify a colleague prior to attending urgent callouts away from the clinic, and managers actually listening to the concerns and suggestions of their staff.

Ultimately, Ms Wright, said being a RAN was an enjoyable profession that had many dedicated professionals, but there needed to be a collaborative approach by state and territory governments, as well as communities and other stakeholders, to ensure adequate protections were in place.

“A lot of nurses who I have interviewed since completing this scoping review say it is such a rewarding job but there is a lot more that can be done to make it safer,” she said.

“For our remote areas, we’re falling down when it comes to primary healthcare needs, so taking away some of the barriers for clinicians who are working to help address that would be really valuable.”