Work safety in healthcare: UniCamillus discusses accidents, burnout and physical safety of physicians and health workers

Porcelli: ‘The category most exposed to risks is that of nurses’; Rossi: ‘68% of INAIL patients have suffered from osteo-articular conditions at work’; Livigni: ‘Burnout is consuming health workers, but it is not reported’; Magrini: ‘Among health professionals, the number of suicides is extremely high’.

The seventh and last session of the ‘Horizons of Medicine’ series of Third Mission conferences has been held at UniCamillus University, Rome. The title of the meeting was ‘Work Safety in Healthcare: Accidents, Stress, Burnout and Physical Safety. Addressing the importance of work safety among healthcare workers’. The focus was on work safety in healthcare, a topic of increasing importance for the well-being of both healthcare workers and citizens.

Healthcare workers are exposed to a wide range of risks, from biological and chemical hazards to the risk of aggression and chronic stress due to exhausting shifts and responsibility for care. These factors not only compromise the health of practitioners but can also negatively affect the quality of care offered to patients.

The event brought together industry experts to discuss current challenges and propose concrete solutions to improve working conditions in health services.

The institutional greetings came from Donatella Padua, the University’s Delegate to Third Mission and Scientific Coordinator of the conferences, who was extremely satisfied with the success and large participation over the past academic year.

Exhausting shifts and high risks

After Prof. Padua, Barbara Porcelli, Councillor of OPI (Rome Nursing Board) gave a talk, pointing out the paradox of how ‘there should be no safer organisation than the health system, considering that its objective is precisely the safety of citizens’. However, there is not as much attention paid to the safety of health workers. Porcelli also pointed out that ‘according to the National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL) 2023 Report, the category most exposed to risks was precisely the nurses’.

For Giovanni Palombi, Head of the Safety and Prevention Unit at ASL Roma 2, this vulnerability of physicians and health workers is due to both avoidable and non-avoidable risks. Among the former, he cited ‘the exhausting shifts and the lack of organisation’; among the latter, ‘the risk of aggression and the biological risk (contact with infected fluids)’. For Palombi, however, the problem is a cultural one, as ‘there is a lack of sensitivity with regard to safety’.

In this regard, Mario D’Ambrosio, Director of the UniCamillus Management Academy and moderator of the conference, reiterated the importance of the Urbino Charter, which was introduced on 2 March 2023 at a public conference in Bilbao and subsequently discussed in detail during the concluding session of the ‘Health and Safety at Work International Festival’, held in Urbino from 21 to 23 June 2023. The authors of the Urbino Charter state that ‘the psycho-physical integrity of people is an absolute and inalienable right’, thus promoting an ethical approach to work.

Burnout: the most likely and least reported risk

It is precisely the psycho-physical integrity that is undermined in the case of health workers, since, as Patrizio RossiINAIL Central Health Superintendent―pointed out, ‘physicians and nurses are subjected to chronic stress due to responsibilities, work often performed alone, and excruciating shifts’. Rossi also drew up a percentage scale of illnesses most often contracted in the workplace: 68% relate to osteo-articular diseases, 15% to diseases of the nervous system, 8% to hearing problems, 4% to cancers, 4% to respiratory diseases and 1% to skin diseases. What about burnout? ‘It is one of the greatest risks for health workers, but it is among the least reported, because it would be like confessing a fragility’, said Lucilla Livigni, Organisational Wellbeing and Psychosocial Risks Area Coordinator of Occupational Medicine at Tor Vergata University. She was echoed by Andrea Magrini, Medical Director of the Policlinico Tor Vergata, who stated that ‘suicides are also frequent among healthcare workers’.

The importance of team organisation

The concept of group organisation is key, and can be useful from a contractual point of view: this is what was asserted by Andrea Filippi, National Secretary CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour)–Health Care Area Civil Service. He also stated that freelancers risk becoming ‘mere workers’, whereas a more consistent union relationship would lead them to have more safety and better coordination with their colleagues.

Inevitable to mention in this context is the figure of the occupational physician, as explained by Antonio Pietroiusti, Professor of Occupational Medicine at UniCamillus. This is a crucial figure, since physicians are in charge of accident prevention and medical examinations to ensure that workers are in good health. ‘The competent physician must combine medical and occupational knowledge, and adapt it to the specific work context’, explained Pietroiusti. ‘But that’s not all: they must also have good communication skills to explain to the workers why they make certain safety choices, making them aware of the value of their own health’.