Mercury spill at hospitals covered up by unions

Issue 

Mercury spill at hospitals covered up by unions

By Paul Jones

BRISBANE — Reports last year in Green Left Weekly of mercury hazards to workers at the Royal Brisbane Hospital, are confirmed by a state government report submitted to the annual conference of Occupational Hygienists in December.

The Workplace Health and Safety division investigated mercury spills at the hospital and found that up to 18 kilograms of mercury were spilled or unaccounted for each year. Half of this amount was attributed to the 50% of sphygmomanometers (blood pressure recording machines) that leak, the rest from the 9000 thermometers which break each year.

The report said, "... nursing staff and instrument technicians were not adequately informed, instructed, trained or supervised with respect to working with instruments containing mercury ...".

The report refers to both illegal vapour levels and skin exposure, recommends replacing mercury equipment with digital, and says the problem is universal in hospitals. Approximately 200,000 Australian nurses are affected by this issue.

Hospital staff say no hazard warning labels have been put on the sphygmos, mercury safety education hasn't occurred, untrained persons clean up spills in the wards, nursing assistants carry broken sphygmos barehanded to the repair shop, nurses on work experience do not know about mercury hygiene and hospital policy does not require that spills be reported.

The hospital plans to spend thousands of dollars on a special Nilfisk vacuum cleaner because the spill unit is useless at retrieving mercury and is now itself contaminated. The promised digital thermometers, which would cost no more than the tens of thousands of dollars spent doing nothing more than observing the problem, have not materialised.

There is evidence, too, that the nursing union knew of the hazard, but said nothing. The 12-member committee MD/12 authoring the Australian Standard 3655-Sphygmomanometers in 1989 had a Royal Australian Nursing Federation representative on the committee.

According to section 13.1 (e) of the standard, "For portable mercury-type sphygmomanometers, a prominent warning [is necessary] on the outside of the case to denote the mercury content, e.g. 'Fragile. Handle with care. Liquid mercury' and its poisonous nature". The British Medical Journal published research as far back as 1982 demonstrating that 48% of sphygmos leak.

Neither has the Queensland Nurses Union been supportive of the union's health and safety rep, ostensibly because he went outside health and safety protocol by reporting the situation directly to the Division of Workplace Health and Safety.

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