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.