Mr Harris has spent the last six months visiting hospitals around the country to understand better how the health service works.
He told a major international conference on violence in the health sector in Dublin yesterday that it is an area “of significant concern” to him.
“As I travelled around our hospitals I have been struck by the physical failings of some our buildings in terms of protecting our staff within the health service,” he said.
Mr Harris said he worries about a nurse or other health professional entering a room alone where there is only one door.
Everything possible should be done so that staff can safely remove themselves from an aggressive situation, Mr Harris said as he opened the three-day global conference.
“It is an area that does concern me significantly in terms of our hospitals that some of the physical infrastructure and environment in which we expect our staff to work in does increase the risk of physical violence and aggression.”
Mr Harris said considerable attention and resources has been spent by the HSE on managing work-related aggression and violence within the health sector.
The HSE developed a national strategy in 2008 called linking service and safety to manage work- related aggression and violence in the health service. Some of the strategy’s 34 recommendations have been implemented, but not all.
Mr Harris said the strategy was internationally acknowledged as an enlightened approach to what is a serious problem within healthcare worldwide. The strategy prompted the first ever academically accredited programme for trainers to support frontline staff in the Irish health service.
Mr Harris said a “rigorous review” of the initiative demonstrates very positive findings in terms of reduced risk and enhanced service user and staff safety.
Mr Harris said the HSE’s People Strategy, 2015-18, is aimed at developing its workforce to deliver the best possible care and services but there is so much more that remains to be done in the area of safety at work.
The conference was brought to Ireland by Prof Kevin McKenna, the author of Linking Service and Safety, who facilitated the national working group and also played a leading role in developing the training programme.
Staff are trained to manage aggression and violence at work in different healthcare settings including the general hospital, emergency department, psychiatry, childcare, and care of the older person.
“It is a very sophisticated study, and its findings are indisputable — staff and patients are safer. The effectiveness of staff interventions improved as did their confidence; their injuries decreased and the level of absenteeism dropped.”
Prof McKenna is hoping the training programme will be rolled out nationally when the study is published in March. “It was developed in collaboration with the HSE and Dundalk Institute of Technology and is the first academically accredited programme for instructors anywhere in Europe. I am hoping that once the study is published it will be rolled out nationally because the evidence supporting its cost effectiveness and return on investment is very compelling,” he said.