A case study of critically unhealthy OH&S

MSAV members recently raised their concerns about the impacts severe understaffing is having on their welfare and the safety of the laboratory operations.

The Bendigo Health public pathology laboratory is operated under an outsourced contract arrangement by Australian Clinical Laboratories. Staffing levels in the laboratory have reduced steadily over the term of the contract and are currently at such a depleted level that some shifts are staffed at 50% below the level necessary to operate the laboratory safely; both for patients and staff.

Depleted staffing levels in this lab has not occurred through misfortune or accident. The single biggest factor is the ACL business model approach, which is an unsophisticated strategy of reduce operating costs anyway possible, which involves not much more than a fixation on reducing staffing, the single largest operating cost in running a lab.

So with gusto ACL set out to reduce the number of scientists and other scientific staff in the laboratory to achieve their current record levels of profit. Necessary in this strategy is a compliant contract partner who is all too willing to buy into the ‘Putinesc’ spin of ACL and agree to the changes readily believing that the labs performance at reduced staffing levels has in fact improved.

So pleased have Bendigo Health been with ACL’s masterful management of its laboratory they decided to award the company with a contract extension.

The second factor is that as a result of ACL’s pursuit of its business model goals (ie reduce costs and staffing) it has now earned the reputation of being the worst of the worst private pathology employers, and scientists are not interested in working for them. Therefore, they now find it next to impossible to recruit experienced scientists in Bendigo, and all of their other labs.

Desperate to try and have the lab safety issues resolved, scientists raised their concerns in writing with Safer Care Victoria.

A woeful tale of how to bury genuine safety issues then ensued. Rather than fully investigate the urgent safety issues raised with it, the safety authority (Safer Care Victoria) hand balls the issues to NATA, the Commonwealth’s private accreditation body, which is not a safety authority, and does laboratory accreditation work, not safety investigations.

NATA visited the site for a few hours, talked to ACL management, then leave without discussing the safety issues with any of the scientific staff, and issue what we are now told is a ‘commercial in confidence’ report that MSAV members and the union will not be given a copy of. The report we have been told by the Department of Health apparently says they (NATA) didn’t observe any matters that concerned them, and certainly none that were significant enough to talk to any scientists about. Surprised?

The MSAV protests very loudly about this appalling so called safety investigation and demands serious action in relation to the safety issues. Department of Health officials boldly interrogate Bendigo Health officials about the details of the safety issues, and are told, apparently, that there is nothing to the issues and that the hospital is satisfied there is nothing in the safety matters raised. Sound familiar?

The Department concludes that based on the discussion with Bendigo Health, there is nothing to see.

Another familiar pattern that is worth mentioning is that no one from Bendigo Health has spoken to scientists in the laboratory to find out directly from them the details of their concerns. Frighteningly, throughout all of the so called ‘investigations’, not a single person has spoken to scientists in the laboratory – these are the scientists that raised the issues and have the detailed information critical to investigating the safety issues raised and making a sound finding on them. How else could an investigation be conducted?

The last advice from the Department boffins is that there doesn’t appear to be problem in the Bendigo Health laboratory because the issues have been investigated and nothing was found.

The model of safety investigations in health has very large holes in it. The Union was told that Safer Care Victoria, which was established following the recommendations of the Djerriwarrh report, has a hands-off approach and mostly seems unwilling to investigate safety issues. Safer Care Victoria were apparently more concerned about whether or not they have the legal jurisdiction to talk to the employees of a private contractor, despite the fact they are working in a public pathology service.

Likewise, the Department has twisted itself into knots about technical legal questions in preference to addressing serious safety issues.

A very concerning dimension to this terrible mishandling of the laboratory safety issues in the Bendigo Health pathology service is that the same Department is midstream in planning major pathology reform. The Union needs to have absolute confidence through this planning process that planners are not going to be jumping at every shadow thrown by private pathology companies.

However, given the importance of reforming public pathology services, the Union will remain a part of the process. We will not walk away from reforming public pathology services, especially given the years of lobbying and advocacy the Union has done around this issue.

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