The Guardian January 23, 2001


WA nurses struggle for staff/patient ratios

by Peter Mac

Nursing staff in Western Australia last week took industrial action to 
reduce excessive patient/staff ratios.

Nurses have traditionally borne the brunt of the cynical manipulation of 
their professional dedication by employers who are intent on cutting costs 
at the expense of their employees and patients.

In recent years the situation in many hospitals around Australia has 
reached critical levels, with adequate care provided only by virtue of the 
extra exploitation of nursing staff.

As a result, Victorian nurses recently decided to enforce strict adherence 
to formal patient/staff ratios.

They have now been joined by Western Australian nursing staff, who are 
negotiating for a new enterprise agreement which would include an 18 
percent pay rise introduced over two years, and who see the action as 
necessary in any case to achieve a safer hospital service in the long term.

The WA nurses' action, which comes at a time of high demand for State 
hospital services, has exposed critical weaknesses in the system, and has 
resulted in the cancellation of elective surgery at five major public 
hospitals.

In some wards hospital management has employed temporary staff, and work is 
proceeding as normal. In others, however, nursing staff have closed some 
beds in order to maintain a service, albeit at a reduced level.

The Australian Nursing Federation has assured patients that their needs 
will be met. "Nurses are doing this in an orderly fashion; no patients will 
be asked to go home early", commented Federation State Secretary Mark 
Olsen.

Nevertheless, the situation has caused considerable embarrassment for the 
ruling conservative government of Richard Court which is facing an election 
and which has long trumpeted its superior administration of the State's 
public hospital system.

However, the situation has not been assisted by State Health Minister John 
Day, who this week resorted to the thinly-veiled threat of civil action 
against WA nursing staff.

Mr Day stated that he had now received legal advice that individual nurses 
and their union could be exposed to legal action if any patient died or was 
harmed by a delay in receiving treatment.

"I would hate for any nurse to be exposed in that way", commented the 
compassionate Minister.

The Australian Nursing Federation was not impressed. Federation State 
Secretary Mark Olsen described the Minister's statement as ridiculous and 
stated that the comments had outraged many nurses, who have always taken 
their responsibilities seriously.

Mr Olsen pointed put that the Minister had not mentioned the possibility of 
legal action against the Government itself, which was after all in charge 
of the hospital system.

The Court Government has now appealed to the Australian Industrial 
Relations Commission, which last week requested the Federation and its 
members to lift the imposed ratios.

After a similar request the Victorian nurses recently agreed to lift their 
ratios in order to give the Brack Government a breathing space to recruit 
more nursing staff.

The WA nurses have therefore reluctantly agreed to do the same.

However, it would appear that the Court Government will use this 
opportunity to draw up plans to forestall the implementation of new lower 
ratios, rather than to attempt to recruit extra staff.

The Industrial Relations Commission is to review the situation in two weeks 
time, in the meantime the union is gearing up for further action. "They 
have one last chance", commented Mr Olsen.

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