Lismore Nurses Shut Beds

Gil Wilson, Lismore Hospital Branch Secretary and Association Councillor
Gil Wilson, Lismore Hospital Branch Secretary and Association Councillor

Management’s refusal to tackle excessive workloads and overtime has forced worn-out nurses at Lismore Base Hospital to close beds.Branch secretary and association councillor Gil Wilson: ‘Our staff deserve the biggest pat on the back for the way they have taken care of patients, but sooner or later something’s got to give, and it’s happened.’

After months of excessive overtime and management delays in filling nursing and midwifery vacancies, nurses implemented safer bed numbers over a three-day period in September.

Nurses planned to close six short-stay overflow beds on September 12 and five surge beds in Ward A7 the following day. On 14 September the maternity unit were to admit only maternity patients to its four surge beds.

Nurses lifted the bans after management assured the NSW Nurses’ Association that all shifts were filled and casual staff were available to fill any unplanned leave.

However within days staff were again required to work extreme amounts of overtime leading the NSWNA hospital branch to vote to shut beds a second time.

Branch Secretary and Association Councillor Gil Wilson said the hospital entered the winter months with 14 permanent vacancies and 30 to 40 unfilled relief positions.

‘Hospital management insisted on overtime rather than use of agency nurses, and wanted us to wait two months to recruit staff. It was burning people out – they went home fed up every night,’ Gil said.

‘Our staff deserve the biggest pat on the back for the way they have taken care of patients but sooner or later something’s got to give, and it’s happened.

‘At our union branch meetings, people said we can’t put bans on overtime because we can’t just leave patients in beds unattended. But we can stop patients getting into beds to start with.’

Gil said some nurses were nervous about the possible impact on the ED but also acknowledged that action had to be taken.

He said the 180-bed Lismore hospital needed another 50 beds to adequately serve the region.

‘The recommended size of an emergency department is one bed per 1000 presentations. We’ve got a 14-bed ED but we had over 30,000 presentations last year.

‘We’ve had instances where seven ambulances are lined up in front of our ED (And patients on trolleys in corridors waiting for beds – for prolonged periods).

‘That level of pressure on beds was always going to present problems for industrial action at Lismore Base, but the nurses nevertheless held their ground.’

Agency nurses rejected

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes wants to know why Lismore Base Hospital management is ready to support overworked doctors but not nurses under the same or greater pressure.

He said union investigations showed hundreds of hours of overtime had been worked in three wards during August.

‘For some reason management refused to use agency staff to do some of this work and take pressure off the exhausted nurses and midwives,’ Brett said.

‘After much delay, management did finally agree to speed up the recruitment process for existing vacancies, but that takes time.

‘In the meantime a stronger casual pool system should be used along with agency staff. Locums are regularly used, at great expense, to help doctors out. Why can’t nurses and midwives get the same level of assistance?’

Workloads out of control

Shaen Springall, a NSWNA delegate at Lismore Base Hospital, said it was not difficult to convince most nurses to close beds because management had left them no choice.

‘Workloads and overtime got out of control over winter – in one two-day period we had 170 hours of nursing overtime,’ Shaen said.

‘People were worn out and just looking for some relief. Normally we would get half a dozen nurses to a union branch meeting but 40 to 50 people turned up to the two meetings prior to shutting beds.

‘Hospital management refused to do anything short term to help us out, such as agreeing to agency nurses. I find that unbelievable considering we are a large referral/teaching hospital.

‘Instead they want to nitpick about what are acceptable levels of overtime.

‘We have at least two agencies servicing Lismore that could provide us with nurses on short notice but they flatly refuse to use them.

‘Instead they tried to fill temporary positions with casuals and sucked up the casual pool.

‘Management also dismantled our permanent relief pool of two nurses per shift who used to be allocated to fill gaps. (Management still refuse to reinstate that.) As a result of our action, and as part of our resolution, they have agreed to reinstate the permanent relief pool.

‘I can’t believe you can go to a manager and say, “We’re worn out, we’re making mistakes, This is unsafe. Can you do something about it?”and they flatly refuse.’