Home News Northern Cape mortuaries in a shocking state

Northern Cape mortuaries in a shocking state

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Ten of the 20 fridges at the forensic mortuary in Kimberley are apparently not working. Picture: Soraya Crowie

STAFF employed at state mortuaries in the Northern Cape have embarked on a go-slow as they believe that the facilities do not meet occupational health and safety standards, where they are forced to work in “shocking” conditions.

Forensic mortuary officials stated that they were unable to perform their duties as they did not have the necessary tools of the trade and were severely understaffed.

“Ten out of the 20 refrigerators at the mortuary in Kimberley are not working. Therefore, a number of the bodies cannot be kept in cold storage. Some of the doors of the fridges do not close properly, so rats enter the facility in search of food and gnaw on the bodies. There have been unclaimed bodies lying in the fridges that have started to decompose. Family members have to arrange with the funeral undertakers to collect the deceased as soon as the autopsy is completed, as there is a shortage of available space,” the staff said.

Workers indicated that the condition of mortuaries in the rest of the Province, with the exception of Springbok and Upington, were just as bad.

Staff members claimed that they were only provided with pine gel to embalm the deceased as well as to disinfect the mortuary.

“We are not provided with chemical detergents, proper disinfectants or formaldehyde solution. Some of us have contracted meningitis and skin infections after being exposed to infectious tissue while performing our duties. We are not offered any psychological counselling despite the stressful environment in which we work.

“The deceased are not shown any dignity. We have to wash the bodies with the same old, dirty sponge that is encrusted with the hair of other deceased persons. The basins used to wash human remains and organs are rusted and the water leaks. Now and then a tender goes out for repairs yet nothing is fixed.”

They added that the forensic vehicles that were used to transport the deceased were unroadworthy.

“A wire is used to secure the back of the van to prevent bodies from falling out. If. A body happens to roll out and onto the road while in transit, then we are charged.”

They added that two officials were “almost killed” on the road as the brakes of one of the forensic vans in which they were travelling were faulty.

Health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA (Hospersa) provincial vice-chairperson Dennis Segano stated that a forensic van that was transporting a body to Kimberley on Thursday was “stuck on the road” about 10 kilometres outside of De Aar.

“The body will start decomposing quickly in this heat. Staff were not issued with uniforms, proper personal protective equipment (PPE), gloves, protective boots and aprons,” said Segano.

National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) branch secretary at the James Exum building, Boitumelo Shupelekae, believed that all state mortuaries in the Province that are non-compliant should be closed immediately.

“Forensic and medical staff have to clean the mortuary, do the administrative work, conduct autopsies and transport bodies although they are only paid one salary and are not entitled to subsistence and travel allowances or overnight accommodation.”

“The Kuruman forensic pathologist is on leave and 10 corpses were sent to Kimberley on Thursda.”

Shupelekae added that there was no career progression and called for all vacant funded posts to be filled as a matter of urgency.

“Emergency medical services staff are being brought in to assist the mortuary, while there is also a shortage of EMS staff. The manager had been serving in an acting position for the past five years.”

Workers also claimed that the PPEs were of sub-standard quality.

“We have to wear gloves that are too large as the medium sizes are finished and human fluids can leak into the gloves if they do not fit properly.

“There are no phones, printers, photocopier machines or fax machines,” they added. “Forensic pathologists have to print post-mortem reports at their own expense or make use of the facilities at the police station or at a copy shop.”

Employees pointed out that the mortuary in Douglas was apparently closed down by the Department of Labour, while the Kimberley mortuary should have been closed down in June because of health and safety non-compliance.

“New CCTV cameras were installed at the Kimberley mortuary, but none of the cameras are functioning. They keep on telling us there is no money for essential items, yet, it seems as if money is being wasted on ghost tenders. Our tears and cries are falling on deaf ears. It appears as if we are working for the Department of Hell.”

Staff added that they felt extremely vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One forensic official is responsible for testing bodies for Covid-19 and fumigating the mortuary, although he has not received any training. He has a seven-month-old baby at home and is afraid of infecting his family and his colleagues should he fall ill.”

The entrance to the forensic mortuary where families wait to identify the body of their loved ones. Picture: Soraya Crowie
Staff at the forensic mortuary are unhappy about the “unhealthy” environment they are forced to work in. Picture: Soraya Crowie
Sponges are allegedly reused to wash the bodies with pine gel as no proper cleaning material is supplied to the forensic mortuary. Picture: Soraya Crowie
Several of the forensic vans are non-operational. Picture: Soraya Crowie

Northern Cape Department of Health spokesperson Lebogang Majaha said on Thursday that PPE and cleaning chemicals were supplied to mortuaries on a regular basis as and when required.

“No post-mortems are conducted without the required protective clothing and mortuaries are cleaned daily after an autopsy. Supply chain processes are currently under way to source suppliers to supplement the current available protective clothing and cleaning chemicals,” said Majaha.

He stated that unroadworthy state vehicles were not utilised on the roads.

“Vehicle repairs are conducted when breakdowns occur. Supply chain processes are on hold pending engagements with Treasury for funding to procure additional vehicles.”

Majaha indicated that all mortuary fridges were in a “working condition”.

“The department has a maintenance plan in place to service mortuary fridges and for possible repairs.

“Arrangements have been put in place with funeral undertakers for the collection of bodies from the scene.”

He stated that, in line with the findings of the Department of Labour, the department was in the process of finalising the erection of a vehicle wash bay at the Douglas mortuary.

Majaha said that forensic mortuaries were attached to hospital facilities with fully serviced and maintained back-up generators.

“Kimberley is the only stand-alone mortuary that has a fully-functional back-up generator on site.”

He added that the department had prioritised the construction of mortuaries that were compliant, standardised and followed uniform protocols.

“Construction to the Springbok forensic mortuary was completed in October 2019 and it is currently fully operational. Work on the Kuruman forensic mortuary commenced in March 2020 and is nearing completion.

“Notwithstanding the major refurbishments effected at the Kimberley forensic mortuary in 2019, including a camera feature for security enhancement, a new mortuary is planned to commence in the 2022/23 financial year.”

Majaha stated that departmental clinical psychologists offered regular counselling and debriefing sessions for staff across the Province.

“The department also provides the necessary vaccines to staff for protection against diseases while on duty.”

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