You’ve probably heard a lot in the news recently about the Government’s back-track on improving health and safety laws. After the Pike River tragedy the Government promised to improve health and safety legislation – so that no family would ever need to have the police turn up and tell them that their loved one was killed on the job – but instead they’re doing the opposite.
We speak to a nurse about what health and safety means to her.
Why does Health and Safety mean so much to you as a nurse?
Firstly, for us in hospitals, I know lots of colleagues that have had accidents at work, twisted knees and backs from lifting. There’s an immediate loss of earnings for that person, they’re down to 80 percent of their earnings on ACC, because our DHB doesn’t top them up, unless we use our sick leave allowance. And then someone on ACC isn’t usually replaced with another staff member, so we get short on the wards.
What happens then?
The first thing to go is meal and tea breaks. Nurses are terrible about working through without taking a break and just running between patients. Then, they’re likely to have more accidents because they are rushing, or even make medication errors or errors of judgement. So it starts having an impact on patient care too. And care rationing definitely happens when you have a staff member off injured. That’s when you decide what is going to keep people alive versus the best care you could give someone.
Can you give us an example?
Like, if you have someone who needs a shower, an elderly patient who hasn’t showered, giving that gentleman a shower might take 40 minutes, but you just can’t afford the time. Basic care like that could get missed. It’s so much easier to prevent accidents from happening than dealing with the flow-on effects of when they’ve happened. That’s why having effective Health and Safety strategies is so critical for everyone. Not just in big workplaces too but in all healthcare settings.
You deal with workplace accidents when people come in as patients too, right?
What people have to understand is that Health and Safety matters to nurses not just for our own workplace but because after a workplace death or accident, we have to come in to fix up the mess. It’s incredibly stressful dealing with a workplace death. When you clock off at the end of the day, it goes home with you. Every accident or death like that has ripples that go far afield and affect many people. And they come back to us too.
What you mean by ‘coming back to you?’
Oh, nurses treat the aftermath of those things with grieving friends and family too, in areas like addiction or depression. Or even poverty, some whole families have to deal with the grief and being thrown into sudden poverty. And then they’re back in the health service with stress and diseases that wouldn’t have happened if their family member wasn’t killed or injured. It’s never just one person affected, and it’s health staff as well.
It’s not just deaths, it’s accidents. Not everyone is covered by ACC so sometimes it’s a choice between their health and their income. When you see a bad employer that thinks workers lives don’t matter a lot it’s really disgusting and you know they think it’s going to cost less in dollar terms to just replace a killed or harmed worker than to invest in health. It costs the rest of us though, we pick up the tab.
There was a case recently, a woman who worked for a really well known New Zealand company, one that’s won awards, that you’d think could do better. She’d hurt herself at work. The operation was the only chance to avoid a permanent disability, but it entailed time off. She told me that she couldn’t take time off because her boss wouldn’t keep the job open, and she wouldn’t get another one. She had a family to support and felt she had no choice. I’m pretty sure she would have gone straight back to work, and as a result of that will have an avoidable and permanent disability.
Do you have a message for the Government about the Health and Safety Reform Bill?
‘Yeah but you can’t print it! No, seriously, good health and safety reps can prevent these kinds of accidents when the attitude to them is positive and constructive and management takes them seriously. The Government has to give the message that they’re important and can’t be removed if they’re a ‘nuisance’ to bad management. We have to look at workplaces where they have health and safety committees that work and where there is a good record of improvement. What works is when unions and workers and employers are doing it right and engaging together. We didn’t have to lose all those lives and Pike River and we shouldn’t be losing any more in other industries now. Everyone has a responsibility.