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Sexual harassment, poor infection controls, understaffing – Workers’ extraordinary claims about unsafe practices in Queensland’s COVID testing clinics

Frontline workers at Queensland’s two largest private pathology companies have exposed shocking health and safety practices, including widespread allegations of physical and sexual assault.

Employees at Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology (SNP) and QML Pathology (QML) have spoken out about a litany of poor practices at the pathology clinics, which conduct tests as part of Queensland’s coronavirus testing regime.

During peak infection rates in Queensland, COVID-19 concerns were raised that poor infection control processes may risk the spread of the coronavirus, including allowing potential COVID-19 patients to attend non-COVID testing clinics, a lack of social distancing and moving collectors between COVID and non-COVID testing clinics.

SNP had also previously prohibited certain staff from wearing masks in the workplace, directing them to remove those masks if they wore them during their shift. This is despite workers with vulnerable family members raising concerns about the risk of workplace transmission. When United Workers Union members took a stand, SNP did a backflip on this policy.

Collectors at QML, which comprise a majority female workforce, are required to conduct invasive urinary drug screens alone with patients that are potentially aggressive or under the influence of drugs.

There have been reported cases of verbal abuse and sexual assault by patients. QML still has not instituted adequate processes to ensure the safety of staff conducting urine drug screens, despite pleas from female staff members who feel unsafe at work.

Employees from both companies have faced backlash after raising safety concerns. A large proportion of the workforce are either “flexible” part-timers or casual employees who are afraid to speak out for fear of losing shifts.

Concerns have also been raised about understaffing, with both companies reducing employees to minimum contracted hours during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of these employees had previously been working full-time hours for several years. The remaining collectors were expected to work long hours and sometimes up to 10 days in a row. One employee reported cutting their hand on a used needle as a result of feeling rushed.

Unreasonable demands outside of their job description are also placed on pathology staff, such as being told to clean the clinic’s toilets. Workers at some QML drive-through clinics do not have reasonable access to toilets, resulting in reports to the union of workers suffering from urinary tract infections and dehydration.

Quotes attributable to United Workers Union spokesperson Shara Teo:

“Pathology workers are at the frontline of the COVID-19 response in Queensland. Safeguarding the health and safety of these workers is crucial, as there is huge potential for community transmission to occur within the pathology clinics. The lax infection control procedures at these private pathology companies – including backflipping on policies around PPE without consulting with workers – pose a huge public health risk.

“Existing health and safety issues created by a culture of bullying and harassment, understaffing and insecure work have been brought to the forefront during this crisis. Private pathology companies have prioritised profits at the expense of the welfare of their workers, who are currently risking their lives to support the fight against COVID-19.”

Quotes from Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology and QML Pathology workers who must remain anonymous:

“We are made to clean toilets where there is infectious urine and faecal matter with no PPE and then expected to get back to our actual job of collecting specimens from patients. The public pathology clinics have been given masks and PPE since the beginning.” – Pathology worker, Collector

“Our skills and training are vital right now. At public sector facilities, employees are treated with respect, here workers who speak out about safety are punished with the difficult shifts and shifts that are inconvenient to their families.” – Pathology worker, Scientist

“I’ve been horrified with the way QML treats workers. They are constantly cutting corners and costs at the expense of the safety of employees and of the community. It’s been an appalling culture of bullying from the start. I look at myself as being a very important part of the fight against COVID and yet the company looks at us as dispensable. The company should be supporting us as frontline workers.” – Pathology worker, Courier 

“I’ve injured myself on a used needle before, it’s hard to do your job safely when you’re rushing because we’re understaffed. It’s completely unjust to be cutting the hours and risking the safety of frontline medical workers to make a profit during a pandemic.” – Pathology worker, Collector

“Women collectors are alone with patients. I have been sexually harassed, abused and assaulted and basically been told it’s part of my job. All we are fighting for is to have our legal and basic rights recognised. The union is the only way we’ve been able to have our voice heard.” – Pathology worker, Collector