Active & Organised – We win


Our hard-fought rights at work will be eroded by Howard’s IR changes unless NSWNA members get active to send a strong message of protest to the government.

This month, The Lamp explores how members have thought creatively and organised themselves in the fight to defend their hard-fought conditions and entitlements. Working with their union and engaging the support of local communities, active and organised nurses can make a real difference to their working conditions, patients and wider communities.

Ice block protest wins air-conditioning battle

It took one thousand ice blocks to finally melt the Health bureaucracy’s 15-year resolve to deny air conditioning to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.

On Monday January 17, the hospital’s 15th birthday, members of the NSW Nurses’ Association stood at John Hunter’s main entrance handing free ice blocks to everyone who came and went.

With every ice block came this message: ‘Nurses are doing this as a protest to mark 15 years without air conditioning. We aim to put some of the heat suffered by patients, staff and visitors onto the Department of Health and the state government.’

The hospital has between 650-700 beds and 450 have never had air-conditioning.

As Health bureaucrats and politicians tucked into a birthday cake in the hospital cafeteria, hundreds of people – patients, visitors and staff – milled around the entrance to offer support to nurses and sign their petition calling for air conditioning in all wards.

The government caved in that afternoon, agreeing to provide the $8.9 million needed to fully air-condition John Hunter.

‘We are all thrilled by the decision – it’s a huge win for the Nurses’ Association,’ said Jade Starkey, a clinical nurse specialist in paediatric oncology and NSWNA delegate.

Another NSWNA delegate at the hospital, RN Andrew Rigg, said nurses would keep up the pressure to have air-conditioning installed as quickly as possible.

‘We realise it will take time but we have told the department we want to see work underway by November this year,’ Andrew said.

The NSWNA branch at John Hunter first raised the heat issue with management in January 1991, shortly after the hospital’s opening, and every summer since.

‘We gave management 12 months notice last January and they did nothing,’ Andrew said.

‘This summer was really unbearable. On New Year’s Day we had a heatwave and bushfire which got close to hospital, and because of that the staff had to close out all the windows. There was no airflow and the temperature inside some wards reached 48 degrees.

‘Staff were really stressed and patients were suffering acutely.

‘Nurses put up wet towels and sheets by the windows to try to cool things down and humidify the air. They were handing out drinks left right and centre, trying to keep everyone cool, calm and collected.

‘Imagine coming in after a fall or a hip operation, or a car accident, or giving birth and then having to endure temperatures in the forties.’

Delegates also reported that pregnant nurses had sometimes been forced to leave work early and people had fainted because of the heat.

‘In the paediatric ward, we have had children in traction come out in heat rashes that just would not heal.

‘There are problems with blood that is hung up getting too hot, and infection implications of sweat dripping into wounds.’

As this issue of The Lamp went to press, the NSWNA was negotiating with management on interim measures to relieve discomfort and risk to patients and staff before air-conditioning is installed.

The union is seeking:

  • Extra staff during hot periods to provide patients and staff with hourly ice and drink rounds.
  • Implementation of ACTU or WorkCover guidelines on working in heat, which provide for extra rest periods each hour when temperatures are excessive.
  • Nurses to be allowed to wear cooler clothing when the ward temperature reaches 31 degrees.

Wendy Goodman, NUM and the John Hunter Hospital Branch Secretary, said the interim measures to combat heat are extremely important. ‘It’s about the safety of our staff and ultimately, the safety of our patients. If nurses can’t function, they can’t work. The interim measures make sure that nurses, and patients, are not at risk.’

Call for industry-wide action on heat

NSWNA General Secretary, Brett Holmes, called on state and federal governments to commit to making air-conditioning available in all health and aged care facilities.

‘The heat issue has serious clinical and occupational health and safety risks in health and aged care facilities,’ Brett said.

‘It’s an issue the NSWNA faces every summer across the hospital sector.’

Brett wrote to NSW Premier Iemma outlining some of the ‘horrendous and dangerous’ conditions experienced by John Hunter patients and staff and asked him to provide funding to air-condition the hospital.

‘Heat is also a major problem in the aged care sector, with thousands of elderly people, many bed-ridden, forced to sit out the summer in rooms without air conditioning,’ Brett said.

‘It’s time the Federal Government also got its act together and did something about the appalling conditions aged care residents and staff often have to put up with during the summer months.’

Media coverage was crucial

The ice block protest followed weeks of bad media publicity for the government over the air conditioning issue.

With temperatures inside the wards frequently in the high thirties and reaching 48 degrees on New Year’s Day, public opinion was clearly on the side of nurses.

‘The media coverage we received was a major factor in the government backing down,’ said RN Andrew Rigg, a NSWNA delegate at John Hunter.

‘Channel 3 local TV ran the story almost every day, the Newcastle Herald were keen to chase it, and we had the Sydney Daily Telegraph up here taking pictures,’ Andrew said.

‘The nurses got good coverage on at least two Sydney radio stations –Tim Webster at 2UE and Ray Hadley at 2GB – and it was all over the local radio.

‘It really shows the importance of communicating your issue to the media.’

Andrew said the public strongly supported the ice block protest.

‘People appreciated the joke and everyone wanted to sign the petition. We had no complaints from the public – it was all, “Thumbs up, go get ‘em.”

As well as handing out ice blocks, nurses gave the public copies of a NSW Health press release which recommends people exposed to excessive heat take similar action to that being requested by the John Hunter nurses.

‘We told people it was time the Health Department practised what it preaches,’ NSWNA delegate Jade Starkey said.

‘I think the department was embarrassed that we were using their own circulars against them. For example they advised people with diabetes and hypertension to avoid hot areas. If we followed those guidelines we wouldn’t be able to admit people to John Hunter.’