Justice Health strike over safety and shifts

Nurses at Justice Health took part in a 24-hour strike on 5 July 2012, as long-simmering tensions boiled over.

Fear and frustration about safety and staff numbers has been a festering sore in Justice Health, says the Association’s state branch secretary Brian Owens, as have disputes over 12-hour shifts and meal breaks.

“People have had enough. They weren’t getting anywhere and Justice Health was only going through the motions of consulting. So they decided to take industrial action. There was very good support. At Long Bay we had 76 attend a meeting and 75 supported the industrial action.”

Nurses at Justice Health’s largest workplaces – Goulburn, Long Bay complex and the Forensic Hospital – participated in the strike. The fuse was set alight by Justice Health’s unilateral decision to change the 12-hour shifts to shifts of 8 hours, 8 hours and 10 hours and to attack the paid meal break, which have been the standard for years.

“There was no discussion with staff about it. Most don’t want it. Over 70 people sent a letter to the CEO asking her to reconsider. Many of these people say they won’t stay at Justice Health long. Many live a long way from Long Bay and they would incur extra costs in petrol and childcare,” Brian said.

“I’ve heard they have had many resignations in the past month. The new shifts are meant to be implemented by August. A lot more people are going to go. They are saying ‘why would I work five days when I can get work at a mental health facility closer to home’.”

Brian says safety is a very high concern among Justice Health nurses, particularly at the Forensic Hospital, a stand-alone high secure mental health facility in Malabar in Sydney’s south.

“Before they built the Forensic Hospital, the previous forensic services were held at Long Bay Hospital. Then Justice Health said they wanted a model with no officers and no security. They said they would train nurses to deal with aggressive patients. Now nurses have to do the security for all six wards in the Forensic Hospital, including the perimeter.

“There are a high percentage of these patients who have committed murders or other serious crimes. They are people who have been in prison a long time and who will stay in prison a long time. Over the years there have been quite a few injuries – serious injuries. Fractures, people have been hit on the head leaving nasty scars; people have been threatened by prisoners with metal cutlery.

“Staff members aren’t happy at all. I don’t think it is a safe place to work. I’ve always been concerned. Most people would be horrified at this environment.”

Brian Owens says these issues are not unique to the Forensic Hospital. “There are very similar issues throughout the state: they have been taking staff away, diluting the skill mix, cutting the numbers without any discussion and systematically reducing staff.”

Brian says staff members not only feel let down by Justice Health, but also by the State Government following its changes to workers compensation.

“We are in a dangerous environment. If someone gets assaulted you are looking at potentially serious injuries – the sort of injury that would put someone off work for a long time. They are the injuries that are affected by the workers compensation changes.”