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Nehawu takes government to court for failing to provide health workers with PPE

Nehawu takes government to court for failing to provide health workers with PPE.
Nehawu takes government to court for failing to provide health workers with PPE.
Image: Thinkstock

 The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) says government is failing in its duties by not providing health workers with personal protective equipment (PPE).

In its papers prepared for the labour court in Braamfontein, Nehawu said government had failed to engage the union on the lack of PPE for health workers in the country. Furthermore, Nehawu says government has also failed to come-up with guidelines to help health workers with what to do when they run out of equipment.

While the majority of South Africans is confined to their homes during the lockdown, thousands of health workers are at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus, risking their lives in the process.In the papers, Nehawu general secretary Zola Saphetha said the department of labour had appealed to employers to use the Occupational Health and Safety Act in governing workplaces during the coronavirus fight. 

Employers and workers should use the guidelines in the Act to help identify risk levels in workplace settings and to determine the right measures to implement, Saphetha said. He said following the declaration of the disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa, Nehawu expected government not only to coordinate all efforts to mitigate the severity of the disaster, but also to have meaningful engagement with the unions on measures to protect workers as they perform their duties.

He said the union tried to engage health minister Zweli Mkhize and his department, but did not succeed. “Following the announcement of the lockdown… Nehawu has observed and recorded many cases of healthcare workers, including its members, working in circumstances which expose them to occupational risk without the necessary PPE,” Saphetha said.

He added that there are currently no guidelines in place to regulate what health workers ought to do when they have to perform their duties without PPE.“Neither the first nor third respondent (Mkhize nor labour minister Thulas Nxesi) have taken any steps to issue such regulations, notwithstanding the government’s acknowledgement of a shortage of PPE for healthcare workers.

“By failing to ensure that all employees that require PPE are provided with, the respondents fail in their legal duty to ensure, as reasonably practicable, that employees work in a safe environment. This is also the case with the failure to issue protocols or guidelines about mitigating the risk of infection for employees required to perform their duties without the appropriate PPE,” Saphetha said.

Workers who are at risk include nurses and doctors, porters, cleaners, administration staff and those working in laboratories.All these workers require differing equipment such as face masks, gloves, eye protection, face shield, gowns, eye protection and also hand sanitisers at their facilities.Saphetha argued that the failure to provide guidelines placed employees at great risk and violates their right to work in a safe environment.

Nehawu wants the court to do the following:-compel government to engage the union on measures taken to ensure that health workers get required PPE; -for all the respondents to file a report to the court on the outcomes of the engagement within three days of the order; -pending the meaningful engagement as set out above, and final order of court, the applicant’s members who are required to be issued with PPE as described in the guidelines above and or any other criteria parties might agree upon, shall not be compelled to render services without PPE and shall not be threatened or subjected to disciplinary measures and or any other unfair treatment for refusal.

The hearing of the urgent application has been delayed on Tuesday morning as papers were filed late.

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