Nurses at Gisborne Hospital have won a major battle at the Employment Court today, after it ruled they will be allowed to strike over health and safety concerns.
The nurses working in the hospital's acute care unit, Ward 5, are set to go on strike for one hour tomorrow afternoon.
Evidence from the nurses, read aloud in court yesterday, detailed how they were often working despite being sick and injured, skipping meal breaks and the constant fear of making a fatal mistake.
But Te Whatu Ora said the planned strike action was unlawful, with health bosses asking for an injunction.
Te Whatu Ora lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk told the court yesterday the union could not argue the strike action was centred around health and safety concerns as there was no immediate threat in this case, as is required by law.
Union lawyer Peter Cranney argued, however, that the ward was often understaffed, meaning it was frequently reduced to life-preserving services anyway.
Following a hearing yesterday, the Employment Court made the decision to dismiss the application to restrict the strike.
In the written decision, Judge KG Smith said: “I have reached the conclusion that although there is an element of symbolism in the employees’ decision to withdraw their labour, because there will not be an immediate fix to the problems, the balance of convenience favours them”.
“The proposed strike encompasses safety and health factors for the employees concerned but a significant part of the evidence presented by them was deep professional concern about the risks posed to patients by understaffing and overwork.”
In a statement released this evening, New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) chief executive Paul Goulter called it a “moral victory”.
"These are exhausted nurses who have given everything they have for their patients for an extended period of time, and they have finally reached breaking point,” he said.
"Nurses right across the health system are not currently safe at work, and to have denied them the right to strike over health and safety concerns would have been an intolerable injustice.”
NZNO Ward 5 delegate at Gisborne Hospital, Christine Warrander, said it was “bewildering” that Te Whatu Ora would push back against a one-hour strike “instead of putting those resources towards fixing the significant health and safety problem they have”.
"Despite overwhelming evidence of physical and emotional trauma from the affidavits we gave in evidence, Te Whatu Ora still tried to argue that our workplace is safe,” she said.
"It simply isn’t safe, and it is our patients’ well-being that is most at risk. Things have got to change before something goes seriously goes wrong that ends a nurse’s career and has lifelong consequences for people."
Te Whatu Ora said that while they acknowledge there are staffing pressures in Ward 5, they can’t reduce beds as it is an acute medical ward.
“Patients can’t be deferred or turned away. The safest place for these patients is where the nurses with the most knowledge and experience about medical conditions are based – which is Ward 5,” chief executive Fepulea'i Margie Apa said.
“We know Gisborne needs more nurses, and we are recruiting, although it is very challenging in the current environment.”
She said Cyclone Gabrielle had put a lot of pressure on the system, holding back progress on any significant changes.
“We’ve also been working with the NZNO since before Christmas on a range of other measures to relieve the pressure on our nurses, but the response to Cyclone Gabrielle means we haven’t made as much progress as we’d hoped.”
Apa said the union and Te Whatu Ora need to be focusing on solutions, not striking.
“Striking for one hour will not remove those pressures – it will probably make them worse and transfer them to other parts of the hospital, such as the emergency department or wards that may not have the specialised skills to care for the patients,” she said.
“Even planning for a strike puts a lot of added pressure on staff and diverts effort that could be applied to working together for a solution that meets the needs of our patients and our people.”
Tomorrow's strike action will see nurses walking off the job to join a rally across the road from the hospital from 1.30pm to 2.30pm.