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Sterilizing technicians in crisis

Emily Ansell
hospital room
Hospital Room  Pixabay

Ever wondered whose job it is to sterilize surgical tools before they are used in the operating theatre? Not many do.

The people who do this are called sterilizing technicians. They make up one of 70 health professions dubbed ‘the invisible workforce’. And they say they are in crisis.

It’s been well publicised: over 10,000 of New Zealand’s health workers from 70 different professions – including sterilizing technicians - are on strike.  

Monique Ethier is a sterilizing technician here in Christchurch. She says her team are overstretched, underpaid, and struggling to keep up with the workload.

“We are currently understaffed by 10 people… In the past two years we’ve employed 12 staff, and we’ve lost 18 - and this is nothing to do with mandates.”

She says last month six new staff had their pay increased just to meet the minimum wage.

“I think it's pretty appalling for a person who’s employed to perform a life preserving service at a Government Hospital.”

 

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Monique Etheir - Sterilizing technician Monique Etheir

Her team clean 14,000 or more individual pieces of equipment in a shift. She says there can be 400 little items in some orthopaedic sets alone.

“It's all got to be dismantled, cleaned, and put through a thermal disinfection washer, then be re-put together again, inspected, reassembled, counted, put through a sterilization process and then back out the other end.”

She says with such low pay and up to 130 surgeries in one 12-hour period, staff rely on overtime. Anyone on call is almost always called back in to work an additional six hours on top of their eight hour shift. They are then back the next day.

Ethier says more often than not staff work to make sure equipment isn't left behind, but this comes at the expense of workers.

She says such long hours heighten the risk of mistakes. Luckily the risk is not so much to patient safety – tools not cleaned are not used. But it's contributing to a growing list of delayed and cancelled surgeries. 

“We’re rushing because we’re under so much pressure to get it down and to get it out there, and we do that because we care about the patients. We don’t want them to have their surgery compromised, or not be able to have their surgery at all.”

 

Footage of equipment sterilizing technicians were forced to leave behind after a shift - Anon source
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Equipment left behind - 10 staff members were working instead of the 20 they should have

On the other side of the country, sterilizing technician Steve Grant is facing the same problems.

“We feel guilty for the patient and that sort of thing, you know? The DHBs rely on that… they know we’ll just get it done [and stay] two to three hours overtime till 1 o'clock in the morning.”

Grant says his DHB budgets for 23 staff, but there are currently only 13.

Delays are also likely, as surgical equipment is often shipped from hospital to hospital. If sterilizing technicians like Grant can't properly complete a set, it won't be delivered to the next hospital in time.

He says it has taken a hugely negative toll on his personal life.

“The work-life balance is terrible because we haven’t got enough staff. We have to work more shifts… so you hardly ever see your family.”

The Public Services Association has been negotiating a new collective agreement for allied health workers with DHBs for the past 18 months. So far, industrial action has been the only result. 

According to PSA organiser Will Matthews, the disruptions to the health system should show how vital members are, and how ridiculous it is that strikes have become necessary.

He says they will only withdraw strike action if the DHB's upcoming offer matches the list of recommendations recently released by the Employment Relations Authority.

DHB spokesperson Keriana Brooking says they acknowledge the time it has taken to come to an agreement, and are reviewing the recommendations under urgency.

“DHBs still hope to prevent further action, and that the offer being finalised now will result in the lifting of the strike action.”

Here in Christchurch, CDHB say they are prepared for strike action and are prioritising patient safety.

Scientific and Technical director for Allied Health, Jacqui Lunday Johnstone, says CDHB are committed to a safe and healthy working environment.

She says anyone struggling needs to speak with their manager, or take advantage of the various wellbeing support options.