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Health care workers threaten to stop performing duties

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He said many doctors and nurses were compelled to provide their own gloves and masks, while workers were offered no protective gear.

In a move that could paralyse the health sector, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) has filed an urgent application to prevent all healthcare workers from performing their duties, until they are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE). 

On Friday, papers were served on the Minister of Health and MECs in all nine provinces, the Department of Health and the Department of Employment and Labour, to force them to comply with the occupational health and safety regulations during the Covid-19 disaster.

The matter is expected to be heard in the Labour Court in Johannesburg on April 7.

Nehawu General Secretary Zola Saphetha stated that they had more than 275 000 members employed in the public health sector, including doctors, nurses, cleaners, ambulance and mortuary workers, who are at high risk of exposure. 

He cited reports of nurses and healthcare workers who had contracted the virus while caring for Covid-19 patients. 

Saphetha added that hospitals and clinics were being forced to close as a result of a shortage of staff, after workers became infected while treating Covid-19 patients, or due to facilities that were contaminated after healthcare workers fell ill. 

He said many doctors and nurses were compelled to provide their own gloves and masks, while workers were offered no protective gear.

“At Tswaragano Hospital in Kuruman, the Kagiso public health centre and Olifantshoek community health clinic staff are not provided with gloves and masks. There are insufficient hand sanitisers. The reasons given by the chief executive officers at these facilities is that there is a shortage of PPEs because of the procurement processes.”

Saphetha also listed a shortage of ventilators, eye protection, boots, respirators and gowns at public health facilities. 

“There is no evidence to suggest that facilities without resources are taking steps to overcome the reasons why they cannot provide PPE. 

“The failure to do so unjustifiably and unreasonably places the health and lives of employees and members of the public at risk.” 

Saphetha stated that there were no guidelines to regulate workers who were compelled to perform their duties in the absence of protective gear. 

“Employees are forced to risk endangering their lives as well as the lives of others. 

“Refusal to work may carry consequences for workers in essential services.

“Health facilities and patients will suffer should healthcare workers refuse to carry out their functions in an unsafe environment. This is an untenable position for employees and members of the public who rely on services of healthcare workers. It is an unfair choice that healthcare workers are forced to make and they should not be required to do so. “

He indicated that “many unsuccessful attempts” were made to engage the Minister of Health and provincial departments to alert them about non-compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

“We have a trail of emails, text and Whatsapp messages asking for meetings in order to engage the Minister on dangers faced by our members on a daily basis in healthcare facilities across the country. We offered to assist government in mitigating the risk of infection to our members and workers.” 

Saphetha indicated that the both a letter of demand on March 30 and an ultimatum that lapsed on April 1, were ignored. 

“The Minister has failed to develop and issue protocols for rendering of services without the appropriate PPE, in a manner that mitigates the risk of infection to employees.

“Our members and workers continue to face the risk of harm on a daily basis as they are required to work without the necessary protective measures.”