Safety concerns as oppressive heat taking toll at Hawke's Bay Hospital

11:30 am on 4 February 2020

A lack of air conditioning at Hawke's Bay Hospital is leaving staff and patients sweltering in 30C heat that unions say is unsafe.

Hawke's Bay Fallen Soldiers' Memorial Hospital, Hastings.

Hawke's Bay Hospital is facing what unions say is a health and safety issue with oppressive heat affecting staff and patients. Photo: RNZ / Peter Fowler

Fans and ice blocks are being handed out to staff and tinted window film installed to help beat the heat on the wards as the mercury has risen to more than 30C for more than a week.

The heatwave prompted Hawke's Bay District Health Board to last week issue a warning for the elderly and children, but with no air-conditioning in its wards it has been doctors, nurses and patients struggling to cope.

Resident Doctors' Association spokesperson Deborah Powell said the heat was often so unbearable it was a now a health and safety issue.

"The staff are feeling stressed from the heat, they are sweating, it makes doing things simply hard."

Temperatures recorded in the wards were in the "high 20s and into the 30s", which was well out of the 19 to 22C range prescribed by WorkSafe for the summer months, Dr Powell said.

The Association had raised it as a serious concern with the DHB for the last three summers and its attempt to cool the staff and patients with fans and iceblocks was "a laughable excuse", she said.

"We can get portable air-conditioning units which you just plug into a wall. There are other ways of doing it. Quite frankly this is more to do with saving money than whether it is possible," Dr Powell said.

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, representing senior doctors, said its members were also struggling in the heat.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation Hawke's Bay organiser Sue Wolland described conditions at the hospital as "very serious" and said her union was worried staff and patient safety was being compromised.

"They're not coping with the heat and the patients aren't coping. It's being escalated every day as a health and safety concern for themselves and their patients."

She said the issue was a symptom of chronic under-investment in the hospital, which desperately needed to be refurbished.

Hawke's Bay District Health Board denied patient safety was at risk.

"The distribution of fans, iceblocks, cooler staff uniforms and the installation of tinted film on ward windows is making a difference," acting chief nurse Karen Bousfield said.

The estimated $7 million cost of retrofitting air conditioning in the wards was in the DHB's capital plan but no date had been set for when it might go ahead, she said.

"It is being considered along with other big building projects including either a new hospital or significant refurbishment."

In the meantime, unions were advising staff to drink lots of water and record temperatures in the wards.

The Resident Doctors' Association said it was keeping a close eye on its members as some staff were sent home with heat exhaustion last summer.

WorkSafe would be notified if temperatures become unbearable, Deborah Powell said.

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