Forensic lab in need of change

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One of the machines waiting to be fixed at the Forensics Chemistry Laboratory in Pretoria. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

Johannesburg - A laboratory that is functioning – but under severe constraints. This is the state of the national Department of Health’s forensic laboratory in Pretoria.

Chief director for violence, emergency medical services and forensic pathology services at the Department of Health, Pakiso Netshidzivhani, took The Star on a tour of the laboratory to show the conditions and speak about the problems they are facing.

This came after The Star in February reported the laboratory as being dysfunctional.

Sources revealed that pipes were leaking sewage, and that there was overcrowding and conditions were unsafe.

Pictures showed high-pressure gas cylinders unchained and unsecured, high fridge temperatures, boxes of blood samples overflowing, analytical balances not calibrated, and expired chemicals.

The department has three forensic chemistry laboratories: in Pretoria, Joburg and Cape Town.

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Head of the laboratory, Kagiso Tholo, explains the state of the blood alcohol samples stored in the cold room at the Forensics Chemistry Laboratory in Pretoria. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

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They are in the front line of the war against drunk driving and unnatural deaths. Blood tests from arrested motorists are sent for testing, as well as samples from bodies where foul play is suspected. The laboratories have been criticised over massive backlogs which go back years.

A few weeks after the report was published, the lab had no samples crowded into corridors, although the fridges where they were stored were full. Equipment that was not working had signs on them indicating they were broken and doors were locked, and if samples were removed they had to be signed for.

The equipment was clean and appeared well maintained.

Head of the laboratory Kagiso Tholo said analysts tested samples twice to confirm results, they had to check the calibration of machines and did numerous proficiency tests. They also keep documentary evidence of what they do.

Gas cylinders were kept in a separate section outside, behind locked gates, although rust stains on the cement in the courtyard showed some cylinders previously stood outside.

The biggest challenge for the staff was the building the laboratory operated from. It’s a heritage building that was once an old farmhouse, and the wooden floors and staircases and fireplaces against the walls aren’t perfect for a laboratory.

With its storage of dangerous chemicals, it is situated near a church, apartments and schools. Adequate space is a problem. There are 57 people working in a building meant to accommodate 30 people.

Netshidzivhani said the Department of Public Works was in the process of procuring a new building for the laboratory, but for two years they had not been able to find one that was suitable. A building has now been identified and managers at the laboratory are eager for the move.

They said that because the building was so old, it needed constant maintenance.

Tholo said the sewage leaks which sources complained to The Star about, came from the women’s toilets.

She said there were two toilets for 30 women and the pipes were often blocked.

Tholo said pictures provided to The Star showing expired calibration stickers on machines came from broken machines that were not being used, saying they did not have enough storage space for the machines to be kept separately.

Another problem the lab experienced was red tape. If a machine broke, a technician had to be called, and if the machine was imported, the company that supplied the machine had to bring out their technicians to fix it. They do have some duplicate machines as back-up in case one breaks.

Suppliers also have to provide three quotations and a lot of documentation, which can create a backlog in services.

Tholo said she believed staff had gone to the media because they were frustrated.

“There are too many people in a small space, working with sensitive things like blood all day.

“They have to work overtime and the pay is low. Tempers rise and there are different personalities,” she said.

Managers said staff members felt they were under pressure to meet targets because of backlogs, but were under-resourced. Analysts also had to go to court regularly as witnesses to the samples they tested. Three to four analysts could be gone at a time.

Alide Grove, a director of forensic pathology services, said analysts had to prepare when going to court and sometimes had to drive long distances to get to the courts.

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