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Hospital heat labelled a ‘risk’

A lack of air-conditioning at Wairarapa Hospital buildings has been noted as a ‘static risk’ to health and well-being over summer. PHOTO/FILE

Story by Soumya Bhamidipati

Wairarapa Hospital staff and patients at risk of heat-related incidents can expect no breath of fresh air, as ventilation units for some areas have been deemed too expensive.

The district health board’s November board paper noted that high heat remained a “static risk” to health and well-being over summer months, due to “ineffective engineering controls to mitigate to an acceptable level in buildings with no air-conditioning”.

A spokesperson for the DHB confirmed there was no air-conditioning in some staff offices and communal areas, corridor access ways, and some patient rooms, which meant the summer months could be “challenging”.

“When the hospital was built, the clinical areas were designed to maximise natural cross-flow ventilation, and no forced air ventilation was installed. The age and style of some of the buildings, including the management offices situated in the old nurse’s home, mean that the cost of adding air-conditioning is prohibitive,” the spokesperson said.

In recent years, air-conditioning units had been installed in the medical and surgical, paediatrics, and maternity wards.

“However the management block, mental health, and some remaining parts of the main hospital building currently do not have air-conditioning and rely on natural airflow, ceiling fans, and portable fan units on the hottest of days.”

Funding decisions were made by the chief executive, informed by the chief finance officer and leadership team, and endorsed by the board with the advice of a finance and risk committee, the spokesperson said.

“Investment is prudently managed to ensure the health needs of the community are appropriately prioritised.”

Any planned structural improvements to Wairarapa Hospital would include air-conditioning, however, the DHB had no confirmed or immediate plans to install further retrospective air-conditioning.

The DHB did not disclose the estimated cost of installing air-conditioning across the entire hospital campus.

When Wairarapa recorded very high temperatures, staff who were able to work from home were encouraged to do so, the spokesperson said.

“We also cater for outdoor meetings, with tables situated under trees close to the management offices, and advocate walk and talk opportunities for staff to get out of the office and get some light exercise as they conduct their business.”

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Health said DHBs were responsible for maintaining their buildings and ensuring they were meeting the required standards and regulations.

In a 2019 statement by WorkSafe, head of health and technical services Catherine Epps said the act did not specify extreme temperatures at which workers should stop working for health and safety reasons.

“Management of work in extreme temperatures has been a workplace health and safety consideration for many decades already,” she said.

“Recognising the signs of thermal discomfort or stress and raising concerns is important for both businesses and workers to manage health risks that come from working in an environment – that is too hot or too cold. Workers and businesses need to be aware that there is a link between heat and fatigue, which leads to potential for more fatigue-related accidents.”

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton most staff at Wairarapa Hospital worked in air-conditioned buildings.

“Heat during hot summers is a long-standing issue at Wairarapa Hospital, but senior doctors working there have never flagged it to us as a health and safety or workplace problem,” she said.

“We have been told the DHB provides fans for staff in other buildings who request them. Certainly, if we began to hear concerns being raised about unacceptably hot working conditions in parts of the hospital, we wouldn’t hesitate to bring them up with DHB management.”

When asked about the patients, the DHB spokesperson said portable fans and other cooling measures were available to those affected by heat.

“We offer cooling packs and iced water, and encourage the use of our lovely internal courtyards with shaded areas that patients can be wheeled out to,” the spokesperson said.

“Buildings that are not air-conditioned – including the management block, mental health unit, and the training centre – take advantage of fixed ceiling fans, portable fans and natural airflow to provide relief in the heat.

“Our mental health respite unit is not an inpatient facility, and clients are free to come and go as they choose. Shaded outdoor areas in and around the hospital complex are well utilised when temperatures rise.”

According to MetService, January was typically the hottest month in Masterton, with an historical maximum air temperature average of 30.2 degrees.

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