Representatives of healthcare workers have demanded that the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) be allowed to examine the high coronavirus infection rate among staff.
Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) general secretary Phil Ni Sheaghdha called for the Government to change regulations that would include Covid-19 as an occupationally acquired illness.
She also told the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee that healthcare workers are exhausted, adding that their biggest concern is the prospect of a second wave of coronavirus cases.
As at last Friday, there were 8,347 Covid-19 infections among healthcare workers – 32% of all cases.
The committee was told this is more than European and world averages.
Of the 8,347 cases there were 319 hospital admissions, 49 admissions to intensive care and seven deaths.
Ms Ni Sheaghdha said: “We believe it is time for the HSA to be involved. We believe that an examination of the high infection rate among workers must be examined by the statutory agency that is tasked with this particular responsibility.
“It is unfair and it is disrespectful to healthcare workers when they have not been given the statutory authority to investigate the cause and to recommend the reasons why. We have to do better.
The idea of facing (a surge) with the current level of support is something that absolutely terrifies them.
Ms Ni Sheaghdha said that the Government should ensure health care workers have the same status as every other employee in Ireland.
“When they go to work and because of the job they do, they become ill. They should have the right to have that examined by the statutory agency that holds that responsibility for any other workplace accident.
“Our members are saying they are exhausted and cannot face they idea they would have to endure this again.”
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Ms Ni Sheaghdha said that at the beginning of the outbreak there was a shortage of PPE, but that has since improved.
“The biggest single issue is fatigue and the length of exposure of the healthcare worker to those with the infection,” she added.
Healthcare workers infected with coronavirus are given access to a telephone helpline, but it has been criticised as “insufficient”.
The committee heard that workers want practical post-traumatic stress support.
“They are saying they are fearful of the ability of their employer to keep them safe. They are determined they will work but they have to be protected,” Ms Ni Sheaghdha added.
Addressing capacity issues, Michele Monahan, a radiography manager, said emergency departments are already at full capacity.
“We are not nearly at burnout, we are at burnout,” she added.
Fine Gael’s Colm Burke raised the issue that 2,878 of the infected healthcare workers had an underlying clinical condition.
“I am extremely concerned that a person working in the HSE who has an underlying condition was put on the front line,” he added.
The committee heard that some of these workers had requested to be reassigned but were refused.
Eamonn Donnelly, head of the health and welfare division of the Forsa trade union, said the HSE took a “very severe position” on the issue.
“They required a consultant’s certificate that somebody had a vulnerable condition and if you didn’t you were asked to continue as normal,” he said.
“There was a prescribed list of what they would call a vulnerable worker and it was really heavy duty stuff, such as cancer treatments, whereas people with diabetes and blood pressure were disregarded.”