Cleaning staff at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital lack the proper training to use toxic chemical cleaning products that have caused eye, nose and throat irritations among workers, according to a scathing report issued by WorkSafe B.C. in September.
An 11-page document, completed in September, 2008 and obtained by the Daily News this week, outlines nine different orders from WorkSafe B.C. to Compass Group Canada, the company that employs NRGH cleaners, to improve work practices.
The report stated that Compass failed to provide "adequate instruction, training and supervision to ensure the health and safety" of workers, adding that the company had no records of accident investigations or a formal process to document accidents or potentially dangerous situations.
The Hospital Employee's Union criticized the Vancouver Island Health Authority for not ensuring that the private contractor had been doing its job, especially last summer, during the height of NRGH's battle with Clostridium difficile, a dangerous disease that has infected 88 people and killed three others since April, 2008.
Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog was quick to criticize the provincial government for privatizing the hospital housekeeping staff in 2004, a move he said has threatened the health and safety of workers and patients.
VIHA officials would not be interviewed yesterday about the report.
In September, WorkSafe B.C. inspection officers demanded that Compass Group immediately improve workplace safety, giving the company 30 days to comply. The inspector was unavailable to comment on Tuesday about changes at NRGH since the order was made.
HEU representatives say they want to ensure someone is accountable.
"VIHA has to take responsibility for the contractor who failed to comply with regulations," said Mike Old, HEU communication officer. "(VIHA management is) responsible for the conduct of this employer. It is alarming that in the middle of an outbreak of C. difficile that this employer was in violation of so many work place regulations."
The inspection report follows a year of similar criticisms at NRGH. The first incident came mid-December 2007 when three staff said their employer kept the hospital understaffed and asked them to cut corners, compromising the cleanliness of the facility.
Then, in the spring and summer of 2008, came the C. difficile outbreak. Nurses and cleaning staff said an overcrowded hospital and too few cleaners contributed to the spread of the disease.
A failed cleaning inspection hurt the hospital's reputation even further. NRGH had one of the lowest housekeeping audit scores on Vancouver Island after an inspection of all government-run hospital and care facilities in the province last year. After initial assessments, eight hospitals and senior care facilities on Vancouver Island needed improvement, according to a report from Westech Systems released in April.
NRGH earned a score of 79%, well below the benchmark standard of 85% and slightly ahead of the worst score of 77% given to Victoria General Hospital. VIHA promptly ordered a second inspection at NRGH, at which time the hospital improved to 90%.
"Cleanliness is essential for public health," said Krog. "You can make all the excuses you want, but the truth is, there wasn't this kind of problem at NRGH prior to 2001. This government did not value the people who worked in the hospital to keep it clean and we continue to pay the price for that ideologically-driven decision to privatize housekeeping."
The B.C. Nurses Union also spoke out about conditions at NRGH. They say the overcrowded hospital does not have enough cleaning staff and most of them have not received adequate training, a comment echoed in September's inspection report. The WorkSafe B.C. inspector found that staff did not know proper procedure when using the chemical cleaners needed to combat the spread of C. difficile. Staff complained of eye, nose and throat irritation after using a two-step cleaning process that included one round of cleaning with Virox 5 - an acidic hydrogen peroxide solution - and a disinfecting solution called Zochlor. Cleaning supervisors also lacked the adequate direction to implement the health and safety program.
HEU representatives called the report a "damning" assessment of what has been going on at NRGH for far too long.
"There is no formal process for people to indicate that there is a dangerous situation, no process to indicate that any concerns are acted upon," said Old. "The fact that nine orders were issued to Compass for NRGH is astonishing."
Officials from VIHA and the B.C. Ministry of Health said they would respond to the report today.
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