Bodies pile up as morgue workers strike
Durban - Bodies are piling up at Durban’s Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary and at local state hospitals after disgruntled mortuary staff downed tools, yet again, this time in protest against “unhygienic and stinky” working conditions.
They have accused the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health of failing to comply with occupational health and safety regulations.
Since Monday, no post-mortems have been conducted there and mortuary staff have refused to fetch bodies from city hospitals, including Addington, King Edward VIII and Inkosi Albert Luthuli.
Families were also not being allowed to identify loved ones at the mortuary.
A source at the mortuary said more than 30 bodies were awaiting post-mortems, while a further 30 were awaiting paupers’ burial.
It is unclear how many bodies are awaiting collection from state hospitals. The bodies stored for paupers’ burials were reported to be decomposing, because the fridges were not working.
The stench was so strong, it had permeated the mortuary, and even went outside the building, the source said.
Private pathologist, Steve Naidoo, described the situation at the mortuary as an occupational health crisis.
A similar crisis prevailed in 2010, he said.
“I heard about the reasons for the strike. It is a distasteful and unhealthy environment for anyone to work in. It is even worse for the families who have to go in and identify bodies.”
Naidoo blamed poor management and strict protocol not being adhered to at the mortuary.
While pathologists were on duty, no work could be done without the help of the forensic pathology officers, the source said.
He said they were tired of complaining about the defective equipment, lack of protective gear and poor working conditions.
“The fridges where the bodies for pauper burials are stored, are not working properly,” the source said.
“The stench is unbearable. Because the bodies have been stored for so long with poor refrigeration, decomposition has set in. Staff are refusing to go into that section.”
The source said bodies were “piled one on top of the other”.
“There is not enough space because of the defective fridges. As a result of staff refusing to access that area, the paperwork for the pauper burials cannot be completed.
“More and more bodies are now piling up.”
The source said while the pathologists were willing to work, they could not conduct post-mortems without the assistance of forensic pathology officers.
The provincial secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), Zola Saphetha, said the more than 40 workers at the mortuary had complained of the “unhygienic and stinky” conditions.
He confirmed claims that the fridges were not working properly and that the stench had become unbearable.
“The taps that are used to wash bodies are also broken,” Saphetha said.
“When the workers wash bodies, the water, mixed with blood, sprays on to them. They do not have protective gear. This is a serious health risk and violation.”
He said their mandate to the KZN Department of Health was very clear: create a safe and hygienic environment for workers.
“If they don’t, we cannot encourage workers to go back to work. They must be given the right tools to effect their jobs properly.”
Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo said on Wednesday through his spokesman, Sam Mkhwanazi, the issue of danger allowance was being addressed by the National Bargaining Council.
On overtime, he acknowledged that payment in some cases had been delayed. In other cases, the employees’ overtime claims exceeded the capped amount of 30 percent of their salary.
“In these cases the request for payment had to go to the accounting officer for approval – hence the delay.”
Dhlomo said that the backlog of pauper burials was a result of the lengthy administration process by police, health and Department of Home Affairs officials.
“We are looking at ways to fast-track this process,” he said.
KZN violence monitor, Mary De Haas, described the situation at the mortuary as disgraceful.
“Enough is enough. The entire mortuary staff, including its management, should be fired,” De Haas said.
“They must be replaced with trained professionals who can do the job.”
De Haas said the dignity of the dead and the grieving families was also being impaired by the poor running of the mortuary.
* September 2010: Workers at the Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary threatened to strike because of overcrowding. The mortuary can accommodate 160 bodies, but had more than 180. Staff had to put some of the bodies on stretchers instead of trays.
* March 2011: Mortuary staff threatened to strike, because of the poor working conditions.
* July 2012: Post-mortems at the Phoenix and Magwaza Maphalala Street mortuaries were cancelled after protective gear and medical stock ran dry – and staff allegedly “disappeared”.
* August 2012: Supply chain management issues and staff dissatisfaction continue to plague the two mortuaries in KZN. Among the concerns were demotivated staff, the poor state of mortuary vehicles, management problems, and public dissatisfaction with the quality of service.
* February 2013: Workers at the Magwaza Maphalala Street mortuary down tools over “unhygienic and stinky” working conditions.