Nurses and other theatre staff are to be balloted on whether to take industrial action, including strikes, over proposals to introduce new rotas that unions claim pose a “threat to patient safety”.
Should staff vote for action, it could lead to cancelled and delayed operations in the new year at Medway Maritime Hospital in Gilliam, warned Unite, which is behind the ballot.
“Theatre staff will be exhausted if they have to work well over their contracted hours in a week”
The union said staff had been warning managers at Medway NHS Foundation Trust for more than a year about a potential safety risk from recruitment and retention problems in its operating theatres.
However, the dispute largely centres on new rosters introduced on 13 November, which the trust argues will improve efficiency and be fairer for staff – in light of the recruitment and turnover issues.
The new system would also bring the theatres into line with its other wards and NHS organisations around the country, said the trust, which described the previous rotas as “unsustainable”.
It has replaced a fixed 37.5 hour per week system with one where staff can work different numbers each week, but as long as they total 150 over a four week period and do not exceed 47 in one week.
But Unite highlighted that the new system could mean staff working well beyond 37.5 hours one week and well below that figure the next, in order to up to the required 150 hours over four weeks.
“By moving to the new rota system we will be able to work more efficiently”
Unite claimed the trust had admitted there was no guarantee that, even over a four week period, hours would add up to 150 and staff could owe hours back or be owed time off every single month.
The union added that, in one incident, shift members worked 12 hours without being relieved for their 30 minute unpaid break, with just a 10 minute break for a glass of water between patients.
As a result, Unite said it was “reluctantly” balloting 74 of its members – including anaesthetic practitioners, staff nurses, obstetric and theatre recovery staff – on striking and industrial action short of a strike. The ballot opens on 4 December and closes on 21 December.
Unite regional officer Kathy Walters said: “The new rosters are a definite threat to patient safety as theatre staff will be exhausted if they have to work well over their contracted hours in a week.
“Staff are working the new rotas under protest,” she said. “We have been in so-called consultations with the management for almost 18 months with patient safety at the top of the agenda.
“The employer has implemented the new shift pattern without agreement, which means that members can be rostered to work well in excess of their contracted hours in any one week,” she said.
Ms Walters said staff from other parts of the trust where the system had already been implemented had told the union of situations where people were rostered for up to 60 hours a week.
“Our members do not feel this is safe for patients, nor is it fair for them as employees,” she said. “They are committed to providing high quality care and are worried that the imposition of these new rosters will lead to risks to patient safety, as well as to staff wellbeing and morale.”
In addition, Ms Walters claimed that “numerous” staff from theatres had left Medway over the last 12 months and the trust was “plastering over the cracks” with expensive bank and agency staff.
“Our members want the restoration of the 37.5 hour week and assurances that they will be relieved when they take their 30 minute break during their shifts,” she said.
“The goodwill of hardworking NHS staff is wearing very thin and our members are at breaking point,” she added.
In response, the trust acknowledged that under the old system, a “significant proportion” of evening and weekend cover had to be filled with expensive bank and agency staff.
But it claimed that, under the new rostering system, it would be able to “make better use of our experienced substantive staff”.
- Hospital trust admits rotas denied nurses sufficient rest
- Plans to change nurse break-times spark petition
- New rota system angers nurses
The trust told Nursing Times that it was “working hard” to fill its vacancies across the organisation, including its theatres teams, against a “backdrop of too few qualified staff available nationally”.
“We have recently recruited 10 new theatre practitioners who are scheduled to start in the new year,” it said in a statement.
The trust added that all of its theatre staff received a 30 minute meal break and on night shifts two members of staff got paid lunch breaks where they are expected to carry an emergency pager.
Karen Rule, director of nursing at Medway, said: “We are disappointed that Unite members have taken the decision to ballot for industrial action.
“The changes that are being proposed to the rostering of theatre staff are to improve how we care for patients and their safety, as well as staff wellbeing. By moving to the new rota system we will be able to work more efficiently,” she said.
“It would also be unsustainable for staff wellbeing to continue with the current arrangements, where small numbers of staff work up to seven days in a row and up to 75 hours a week while others worked markedly less,” said Ms Rule.
Trusts commit to nurse recruitment despite regulator warning
“The new, fairer rota model would bring all theatre staff working patterns in line with those of staff on our other wards at Medway and the NHS nationally, including other theatre departments, with staff working an average of 37.5 hours a week and no more than 47 hours total,” she said.
She added: “We appreciate that any changes to working patterns can initially be disruptive to staff and want to support staff. We are committed to continuing the extensive engagement between management and staff that has characterised discussions on these issues to date.
“We hope that we will be able to both come to an agreement that will mean that we can provide the better care for patients that we are aspiring to deliver, will be acceptable to all parties and avoid disruption to the care of our patients through needless strikes,” said Ms Rule.
If industrial action goes ahead, the trust said it would make “every effort to flex its workforce creatively” to avoid inconvenience and delays to scheduled treatment, where possible.
Unite theatre staff are being asked to consider industrial action in relation to “not being relieved of duty for unpaid meal breaks” and “proposed changes to contracts which will result in the ability of the employer to roster members for more than their weekly contracted hours in any one week”.