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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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New Zealand Clinical Laboratories to Undergo Health and Safety Checks after Workers Contract Typhoid, Others Exposed to Chemicals

This comes on top of months of strikes by NZ medical laboratory workers seeking fair pay and safe working conditions

Te Whatu Ora (aka, Health New Zealand, the country’s publicly funded healthcare system) recently ordered health and safety checks at multiple clinical laboratories in 18 districts across the country. This action is the result of safety issues detected after procedural discrepancies were discovered in separate labs.

According to Radio New Zealand(RNZ), Health New Zealand found “significant risks” at some medical laboratories and that “staff at one in Auckland were exposed to toxic fumes, at others two [people] caught typhoid, and delays jeopardized patients’ care.”

“Two lab workers were hospitalized this year after having caught typhoid from samples, one at a private lab in Auckland, and a second at Canterbury Health Laboratories, CHL,” RNZ reported.

A Health New Zealand internal document states there will need to be a “comprehensive” fix to deal with risks present in the island nation’s medical laboratory industry. The assessment states that the organization needs “a more detailed picture of the occupational health and health and safety risks present in our laboratories,” RNZ reported.

“The overall state of the laboratories and the practices they have in place pose an inherited risk from the former DHBs [district health boards] and will likely need a comprehensive approach to addressing significant and/or ongoing risks,” Health New Zealand said in the internal document. “There is growing demand on our laboratories in terms of the volume of the work, which can put pressure on processes, and work is often undertaken in facilities that, over time, may have become not fit for purpose.”

This story as an example of how clinical laboratory staff can be exposed to disease and toxic chemicals when procedures are not diligently followed. It is a reminder to all lab managers that diligence in following protective protocols is imperative.

“Te Whatu Ora is committed to identifying, tracking and mitigating all potential risks and issues within our service until they are fully resolved and no longer identifiable as an issue/risk,” Rachel Haggerty (above), Director, Strategy, Planning and Purchasing, Hospital and Specialist Services, for Health New Zealand told NZ Doctor. Clinical laboratory workers in New Zealand have been striking for fair pay and safe working environments for months. Now, they risk becoming infected by deadly pathogens and chemicals as well. (Photo copyright: NZ Doctor.)

Lab Worker Strikes and Staff Shortages

Community Anatomic Pathology Services in Auckland lost its histology accreditation last year because it was discovered that lab workers were exposed to toxic chemical levels at the facility. In addition, patients were forced to wait weeks for test results from that lab. 

The laboratory was also penalized back in 2017 for how substances were handled when formaldehyde levels in excess of the recommended limits were detected. 

Bryan Raill, a medical scientist at the Counties Manukau District Health Board, said the laboratory workers union in New Zealand believes staff shortages and lab conditions are contributing to the lab woes. Raill is also president of the medical laboratory workers division of APEX, a specialist union representing more than 4,000 allied, scientific, and technical health professionals throughout New Zealand.

“It’s not only your physical environment, being safe there, but you have to be safe in terms of what you do,” Raill told RNZ.

Raill said the two typhoid infections were a red flag and that Te Whatu Ora needs to do more.

“They’re stepping out of the inertia they’ve been bound, so this is a good thing, but it needs to be a wider thing,” he said.

The New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS) warned the government months ago that lab technicians were under unsustainable pressure.

“They should look at the other health and safety aspect of the workload and the work environment that staff are working under,” Raill explained in an iHeart podcast. “The person who caught typhoid in Christchurch spent four days in ICU, and there had been a workplace exposure to another pathogen two years earlier and the recommendations that came out of that hadn’t been followed. For example, [the lab workers] were not vaccinated against typhoid.”

IT Implementation Delays also to Blame

Along with strikes and staff shortages, clinical laboratories in New Zealand are also dealing with information technology (IT) issues. Technical problems have delayed some needed lab upgrades by more than a year. 

In addition, “The impacts of new test, surgeries, and medicines/treatments on pathology services have also historically not been understood well nor accounted for and we are considering a number of options, as outlined in the risk register, to manage this,” said Rachel Haggerty, Director, Strategy, Planning and Purchasing, Hospital and Specialist Services, for Te Whatu Ora.

Future efforts will deal with training of lab personnel and focus on ventilation and hazardous substance management. 

Dark Daily has reported extensively on the ongoing problems within New Zealand clinical laboratory industry.

In “Pathology Lab Shortages in New Zealand Are One Cause in Long Delays in Melanoma Diagnoses,” we reported how pathology shortages were causing some patients to wait for more than a month for a melanoma diagnosis. And that the situation is putting cancer patients’ lives at risk.

And in “Medical Laboratory Workers Again on Strike at Large Clinical Laboratory Company Locations around New Zealand,” we covered ongoing strikes by medical technicians, phlebotomists, and clinical laboratory scientists in New Zealand and how their complaints mirror similar complaints by healthcare and clinical laboratory workers in the US.

Clinical laboratory personnel can be exposed to dangerous diseases and toxic chemicals when procedures are not diligently followed. This latest situation in New Zealand serves as a reminder that following protective protocols is imperative in labs worldwide to protect workers and patients.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Te Whatu Ora Finds ‘Significant’ Risks at Labs, Workers Catch Typhoid from Samples, Exposed to Fumes

How to Fix the NZ Laboratory Fiasco

Private Healthcare Pushing Auckland Labs to the Brink

Bryan Raill: Apex Union President Urges Te Whatu Ora to Thoroughly Assess Risk in New Zealand Laboratories

Pathology Lab Shortages in New Zealand Are One Cause in Long Delays in Melanoma Diagnoses

Medical Laboratory Workers Again on Strike at Large Clinical Laboratory Company Locations around New Zealand

Four Thousand New Zealand Medical Laboratory Scientists and Technicians Threatened to Strike over Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions

Four Thousand New Zealand Medical Laboratory Scientists and Technicians Threatened to Strike over Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions

Last-minute court injunction stopped a mass walkout, but allied health workers continue to push country’s District Health Boards for improvements

In New Zealand, the unprecedented surge in PCR COVID-19 testing due to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant appears to have pushed the country’s 10,000 healthcare workers—including 4,000 medical laboratory scientists and technicians—to the breaking point.

On March 3, just 24 hours before the first of two walkouts was scheduled to begin, New Zealand’s Employment Court banned the strike that would have shut down medical laboratories in the country’s mixed public-private healthcare system. Medical laboratory workers make up 40% of the nation’s 10,000 healthcare workers who planned the nationwide strike to protest low pay and poor working conditions, according to 1News.

“COVID was the perfect storm for the profile of laboratories and how undervalued they have been for far too long,” said medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor, president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS).

Judge Issues Injunction Restraining the Strike

New Zealand’s Public Service Association (PSA) is the country’s largest trade union representing more than 80,000 workers across government, state-owned enterprises, local councils, health boards, and community groups.

The PSA’s 10,000 health workers (which includes 4,000 medical laboratory workers) had planned to strike on March 4-5 and March 18-19, but, according to the New Zealand Herald the Employment Court stopped the walkouts due to the rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

The Herald noted, however, that PSA union members in Auckland had already postponed their walkout after county District Health Boards (DHB) expressed concern over patient safety.

“Striking has always been our last resort, and our members in Auckland continue to demonstrate their commitment to providing quality healthcare to New Zealanders by working tomorrow,” PSA Organizer Will Matthews told the Herald.

He insisted, however, that DHBs need to respond to workers’ concerns. “The depth of feeling from our members, and the support for industrial action nationwide is unprecedented,” Matthews told 1News. “We are now in a position where strike action is our only remaining option to get the DHBs and the government to listen.”

Terry Taylor
In an interview with Stuff, medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor (above), president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science, acknowledged laboratory workers’ commitment to doing the work, but he is concerned about the next big testing surge. “Goodwill only goes a certain distance in the end when people are knackered and not getting what they need. At the moment, we have the capability to do 50,000 to 60,000 [tests] per day throughout the whole country, but we couldn’t run that for more than a week. We’d be dead, we’d be overrun,” he said. Clinical laboratory leaders in this country may want to make note of Taylor’s concerns, as laboratory conditions in this country become stressed as well. (Photo copyright: Newshub.)

Clinical Laboratory Workers Claim Low Wages, Poor Conditions, Irrelevant Testing

While no new strike dates have been set, Matthews said striking workers would include contact tracers and laboratory staff as well as nearly 70 other groups of healthcare workers, many of whom “don’t even earn a living wage.” According to Peoples Dispatch, allied health workers are working under the terms of a contract that expired in 2020.

The starting salary for a DHB medical laboratory scientist after completing a four-year degree is NZ$56,773 (US$39,519), while lab assistants and technicians start out at less than NZ$50,000 (US$34,804), Stuff reported.

In an interview with 1News, Taylor maintained that diagnostic labs in New Zealand have long been understaffed, undervalued, and their workers poorly treated. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, has exacerbated an ongoing problem. Issues such as space constraints, for example, have become even more problematic.

“We’ve got extra machinery that’s come into the labs, we don’t get any more space, all these consumables sitting all over hallways and corridors, extra staff coming in to do the stuff,” Taylor told RNZ. “So, we’ve lost all our tearooms, we’ve lost all our office space, our conditions are markedly less than they should be.”

1News points out that the country’s medical laboratory scientists and technicians are processing more than 20,000 PCR COVID-19 tests per day in addition to running 120,000 other samples and 200,000 diagnostic tests. At the end of March 2020, the average number of COVID-19 tests processed per day was 1,777.

While New Zealand has preached to its citizens the need for widespread PCR testing, Taylor argued in February 2022 that the country must change its approach to offering PCR testing only to symptomatic individuals and close contacts.

“To run our diagnostic laboratories into the ground with endless irrelevant testing is a direct reflection of poor foresight, planning, and respect for the role of this critical health workforce,” Taylor told Newshub.

Necessity of Rewarding All Medical Laboratory Personnel

Medical laboratory scientist Bryan Raill is president of Apex, a specialist union of allied, scientific and technical employees. Raill told 1News the long-term solution is for the government to address pay equity, staffing levels, and worker wellbeing in the country’s historically undervalued medical laboratories.

“Medical laboratory scientists and technicians have to be fairly rewarded for the training, skill, and expertise they bring to the health system,” Raill said. “Medical laboratory scientists need a timely, fair, and equitable process to determine their worth.”

While the stresses on New Zealand medical laboratory workers are not identical, US clinical laboratory leaders will want to monitor the lengths to which New Zealand’s laboratory workers are willing to go to force improvements in their working conditions, staffing, and pay.

As the noted above, the government-funded health system is continually strapped for funds. Consequently, the health districts often defer capital investment in hospitals and medical laboratories. That is one reason why lab staff can find themselves working in space that is inadequate for the volume of specimens which need to be tested daily.

Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Why the ‘Hidden Heroes’ of Our COVID-19 Response Are Striking

COVID-19 Omicron Outbreak: Health Strike Postponed after Employment Court Grants Injunction

New Zealand Employment Court Passes Injunction to Scuttle Health Workers’ Strike

10,000 Health Workers Strike as Omicron Wave Hits

After almost Six Million Tests, an Omicron Explosion Will Heap More Stress on Exhausted Laboratory Workers

Burnt Out Laboratory Staff Working in Poor Conditions, Institute Says

COVID-19: PCR Testing Reaches ‘Crisis’ Point, Public Health and Lab Staff Plea for Symptomatic Testing Only

Pathology Laboratory Consolidation May Leave New Zealand Holiday Destinations with Limited COVID-19 Testing Capacity as Omicron Variant Arrives

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