The Ambulance Service of NSW and the Health Services Union (HSU) have been in ongoing dispute over the introduction of new rosters for rural ambulance stations.  I understand that the current roster has paramedics working for 12 hours on, then 12 hours off but during the ‘off’ period they are ‘on call’ and liable to be called back to work during which time they are paid ‘overtime’.  The ambulance service proposes to introduce 8 hour day and afternoon shifts so officers work shorter hours, but the effect is that their period ‘on call’ will be longer and they will get less consecutive days off to reflect the fact that they are working shorter hours.   Before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission the HSU argued ‘At the present time, ambulance officers enjoy 4 x 4 shifts (4 days work, 4 days off work). This will change to a roster pattern of 7 days work x 2 days off work.’  The fewer days off, the long on call and other changes, it was argued would affect officer fatigue and also impact upon the ability of officers to meet their normal family commitments (that is actually have time to spend at home with partners and children).

The matter was notified as an industrial dispute and brought before the NSW Industrial Commission.  on 9 October 2012 Justice Staff handed down his recommendations on how to progress the matter (see Ambulance Service of NSW and Health Services Union NSW [2012] NSWIRComm 111).  The judge heard submissions from both parties, from the ambulance service as to why they felt the new rosters would better allocate resources and give paramedics more down time; an officer who finishes a day shift is unlikely to be called out when there is a working afternoon shift.  The service also presented evidence of the workload of affected stations to show that the low demand periods were after the conclusion of the afternoon shift to support the argument that the roster would decrease the number of call outs that officers had to respond to.   The HSU raised their concerns about time off and the lack of officers to cover rosters so there would be issues of working single crew ambulances and moving staff and resources around regions to meet the needs of the various stations.    At the end of the hearing, Staff J made the following recommendations.

1.The Ambulance Service of NSW consistent with the Memorandum of Understanding between the parties, is to undertake a review of the workability of the rural reform rosters in respect of phase one, after such rosters have operated for a period of three consecutive roster periods (28 day roster periods).

2.In accordance with the strategy of the Ambulance Service of NSW to improve its efficiency, the Ambulance Service of NSW should liaise with local health authorities in an attempt to reduce non-urgent transfers between midnight and 8.00am and any other matter that might assist in addressing issues of officer fatigue.

3.Zone Managers, Deployment Managers and station officers should take into account a desire of an officer to work particular days, based on individual circumstances, for example, child care arrangements, attendance at weddings and other important events, when developing roster projections. An officer in the Human Resources Section of the Ambulance Service of NSW in Sydney should be made available to deal with any particular officer/s grievances if not addressed, at a local level.

4.Pursuant to s 136(1)(a) of the Industrial Relations Act 1996, I direct that the Health Services Union NSW and employees of the Ambulance Service of NSW are not to organise, participate or be involved in any industrial action arising from the introduction of the rural reform rosters at regional non-24 hour stations which provides for the working of an 8 hour day shift and an 8 hour afternoon shift.

(But see, ‘Paramedics ‘gutted’, but Ambulance Service applauds roster rulingBega District News, 12 October 2012).

The matter remains before the Commission.   The HSU had previously lodged a notice of dispute with the Commission and that remains before Boland J.  The history of these proceedings is clearly long and reflects fundamental tensions between the officers and management of the ambulance service and is also reflected in press reports coming, from other states (see for example ‘Hundreds of ambulance shifts left unfilled across Victoria as paramedics fight fatigue’, Herald Sun, 20 September 2012; ‘ Paramedics’ fatigue is everybody’s concern‘ The Age, 2 July 2012; ‘Angry ambos speak out‘  TheMercury.com.au, 17 October 2012) that paramedic fatigue is a pressing issue across the sector.  Recent demands for public service cuts (see ‘Firies, ambos campaign against Queensland government‘ brisbanetimes.com.au, 16 July 2012; ‘Tony Abbott backs Campbell Newman’s Queensland public service cuts‘ The Australian, 28 August 2012) would suggest that one option, employing more paramedics, is out of the question.

Regardless of the outcome in the Commission, the ambulance service, as an employer has a duty to ensure a safe work environment (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) s 19) and to consult with staff about work health and safety issues (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) Part 5).   The consultation process must ensure that employees are

 … given a reasonable opportunity:

(i) to express their views and to raise work health or safety issues in relation to the matter, and

(ii) to contribute to the decision-making process relating to the matter, and

(c) that the views of workers are taken into account by the person conducting the business or undertaking, and

(d) that the workers consulted are advised of the outcome of the consultation in a timely manner. (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) s 48)

If there is evidence of an adverse impact upon paramedic performance, paramedics should insist that this gets raised regularly through OHS consultation processes.   Paramedics could ask for the election of health and safety representatives (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) s 50).  The representative could exercise the powers under the Act (s 68) to monitor the situation and to keep the issue on the agenda.

The Ambulance Service is no longer governed by its own Act; it is a health service under the Health Services Act 1997 (NSW).  Each ‘officer’ (ie the Director General of Health and the Chief Executive of the Ambulance Service and members of the Ambulance Services Advisory Council) have a personal duty to exercise due diligence to ensure that they are up to date on OHS issues – (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) s 27).

If a paramedic is too tired such that it would be dangerous to drive without sleep, they should be able to notify the coordination centre that they are no longer available for on call work as to respond would be to commit the offence of dangerous driving, see also (Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) s 84 “A worker may cease, or refuse to carry out, work if the worker has a reasonable concern that to carry out the work would expose the worker to a serious risk to the worker’s health or safety, emanating from an immediate or imminent exposure to a hazard” see also s 85 ‘Health and safety representative may direct that unsafe work cease’ and s 86 ‘Worker to notify if ceases work’).  That would be a ‘brave’ step as we can imagine the ASNSW would not look kindly upon that and the worker who refuses to be on call, without strong union and colleague support, is likely to lose their job, but such action is allowed by law and could be relied on in ‘real’ cases, eg after a busy 8 hour shift, then an long on call job, letting coord know you need time off as you are simply too tired to perform safely.

Michael Eburn

17 October.