Nurses speak out: uniforms are inadequate

Public-sector nurses are unhappy with uniforms, NSWNA review reveals.

A comprehensive review of the current NSW nurses’ uniform has revealed what anecdotal evidence has long suggested: few nurses are satisfied with their uniform, and many are very dissatisfied.

In 2007, NSW Health replaced area-health and hospital-specific uniforms with a standard, state-wide uniform contract. The NSWNA was not represented on the uniform steering committee, or consulted before the contract was finalised. On the Association’s request, the Department agreed to review the uniform no later than six months after its release, but no such review ever took place. Consequently, the NSWNA conducted its own review.

The response to the uniform survey was overwhelming, with thousands of NSWNA members completing and returning the three-page questionnaire. As indicated in the letter of the month, ‘The Uniform Saga’, in the September issue of The Lamp, and a vibrant, ongoing comment thread on Nurse Uncut, many NSW nurses have had extremely negative and frustrating experiences with their uniforms.

The survey revealed disturbing inadequacies in regard to ordering and supply, quality and appearance, and health and safety issues.

Although a small number of respondents said they were generally satisfied with the uniform once it arrived – which was rarely on time, with 67% of nurses reporting unsatisfactory waiting times before delivery, often waiting up to eight months, or ‘18 months and still waiting’, in one case – it was clear from the survey results that the uniform is not meeting the standards of quality or choice that NSW Health had promised.

A large discrepancy was evident between regional and metropolitan hospitals for some issues. Forty one per cent of rural nurses reported no opportunity to try on uniforms before they placed an order, compared with 18% of nurses in metropolitan areas. Many nurses had to order from a catalogue, which did not provide size measurements, and no returns were accepted or refunds given for badly fitting or faulty garments. Of those who were able to try on a uniform before ordering, 43% complained that the clothes they received varied in size, and sometimes in fabric, from the sample garments they had tried on.

Contrary to an agreement between the NSWNA and NSW Health, 13% of nurses reported not being offered a polyester/cotton blend uniform as an option. Casual nurses reported problems getting uniforms supplied, male nurses reported a lack of choice, and 47% of nurses said the quantity of uniforms provided was insufficient for the number of shifts they worked.

Half of all nurses said the uniforms were uncomfortable, and they had problems with wear, such as pilling and splitting of seams and hems. Many nurses also complained that the uniforms were transparent, revealing, unflattering and unprofessional. One respondent said she had been confused for a store worker when shopping in Big W, and another said her patients often asked for ‘fries with that’, because she looked like a McDonalds employee.

Following these disturbing results, NSW Health met with the NSWNA to discuss and address the identified problems. Reportedly, the area health services met with the uniform provider in March this year, after which two consultative committees were formed, one focused on quality and one on the ordering process. Quality of manufacture has allegedly improved, but the ordering and supply process continues to present problems and needs to be addressed.   NSWNA requested the development of a web-based ordering system with adequate garment descriptions and an order confirmation number.

This would relieve NUMs of ordering uniforms, which they are currently expected to do in some area health services. It was also agreed that nurses should have the right to return faulty uniforms or incorrectly supplied items in line with trade practices legislation. The Association will be belatedly invited to participate in the consultative committees that were set up some months ago to deal with ordering and quality issues.

The current uniform contract expires in October 2011.

What members said

I have bought replacement pants as mine touch me everywhere but fit me nowhere.

I would prefer my uniform allowance back. The uniforms are not made in Australia, they fit poorly, and the service from the company is unsatisfactory.

My polo shirt fell apart in the wash and it has holes in it. Size 10 varied by up to 10cm when compared with other size 10s. The company refused to exchange it for a smaller size and said it was not their problem.

The statistics

  • 44% of nurses were not offered a full range of uniform sizes and style options;
  • 49% complained that the uniforms were uncomfortable to wear, and 51% said the fabrics did not wear well;
  • 67% said the garments were unflattering;
  • 54% of respondents said their nursing classification was not visible or evident on the uniform, and CNCs and CNSs complained that patients asked them to do extra general nursing duties as a result;
  • Only 31% of nurses said the uniforms breathe well, and 59% reported that the garments restricted their movement.