Nurses win action to beat the heat


Management agrees to air conditioning plan

John Hunter hospital nurses have won an agreement to provide fixed air conditioning in staff rooms and rest breaks to relieve heat stress, following a last-minute backdown by NSW Health bosses.

All staff including managers will attend compulsory education on heat stress and measures to combat it including rest breaks.

The hospital’s Reasonable Workloads Committee will examine a proposal by the NSW Nurses’ Association for extra nursing hours to be devoted solely to patient comfort during hot weather.

Management also agreed to provide sealed water three times daily to all heat-affected areas and allow staff to wear cooler non-uniform clothing.

The breakthrough came after Hunter New England Area Health Service executives twice rejected proposals to cope with heat stress put forward by the hospital’s NSWNA branch.

Management reconsidered after the NSWNA moved to take the dispute to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.

The proposals accepted by management are interim measures to beat the heat pending installation of air conditioning throughout the hospital. This is expected to take at least 15 months.

A strong community campaign led by the NSWNA branch forced the state government to promise to fully air-condition the 700-bed hospital. The government was embarrassed by a protest by nurses who handed out free ice blocks during the hospital’s 15th birthday celebrations in January.

Staff and patients fainted and suffered heat rashes during this summer’s heat waves.

Despite the well-publicised suffering of patients, health bureaucrats initially turned down all key proposals from the branch.
Management offered no practical suggestions of their own to relieve heat stress during two meetings with NSWNA representatives.

The NSWNA was represented in the talks by NSWNA Officials and John Hunter branch officials.

‘Management at first took a hard line and basically rejected all our requests,’ said NSWNA branch secretary Matt Byrne.

‘They said there was not enough money in their budget and they didn’t want to set a precedent for other hospitals,’ Matt said.

‘Now we will get fixed air conditioning in one staff room per ward, and the Reasonable Workloads Committee will examine our claim for extra nursing hours devoted exclusively to giving sponge baths, providing water and the like, especially for patients who are bed-bound, very young or elderly.

‘We are asking that four extra nursing hours per 16 patients be provided once the predicted temperature reaches 34 degrees or above.

‘Nurses are beyond fed up with working in extreme heat. They’ve got an oscillating fan that sits above the nurses’ station but that just pushes hot air around the place.’

The NSWNA branch also sought rest breaks in accordance with a time/temperature matrix of 10 minutes rest per hour between 30-34 degrees and 20 minutes rest per hour above 34 degrees.

Management rejected this formula, claiming agreement would set a precedent for every hospital in the state.

They have now agreed that a nurse affected by the heat can approach their manager who will have to ensure that person gets a break in a cool room.

‘There is no set time for the break but we are happy to run with these guidelines to see if they work.

‘The mandatory education program is a major win for us because staff and managers will be alerted to the seriousness of the issue and the need for rest breaks and other measures to relieve stress.’

Management’s offer was unanimously accepted at a well-attended branch meeting and the branch will continue to push hard for extra nursing hours at the Reasonable Workloads Committee.

‘We tried so hard to get four extra hours nursing solely for patient comfort and management has rejected that. On the other hand the air-conditioned staff rooms and rest breaks should mean that patients will get better care from nurses who will be under less stress.

‘Even five minutes every hour in a cool room will allow nurses to be more efficient and patients will benefit from that.’

Only 63% of beds air-conditioned

Almost 40% of NSW public hospital patients are exposed to heat stress because wards lack air conditioning.

Premier Morris Iemma revealed only 63% of public hospital beds have air conditioning, the Sydney Morning Herald reported recently.
Mr Iemma said all hospitals built in the last 10 years were air conditioned and the rest would be converted during redevelopments, according to the Herald.

What John Hunter nurses have won
The strong community campaign led by John Hunter nurses has won:

  • A State government promise to fully air condition the hospital at a cost of $8.9 million.
  • As an interim measure, about 20 staff rooms (one in each ward) will be provided with fixed air conditioning.
  • Nurses may request rest breaks to escape the heat.
  • The hospital’s Reasonable Workloads Committee will examine a NSWNA proposal for extra nursing hours to be devoted solely to patient comfort during hot weather.
  • All staff including managers will attend compulsory education on the dangers of heat stress and how to combat it.
  • Sealed water to be supplied three times daily to all heat affected areas.
  • Nurses can wear ‘suitable non-uniform clothing’ in hot weather.
  • NSWNA branch executive to be represented on the air conditioning implementation committee.