Cape Town 23-12-10 - Salt River Mortuary and pathologist Marshall Maritz Picture Brenton Geach

Bodies are piling up at Durban’s Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary and at local state hospitals after disgruntled mortuary staff downed tools, yet again, this time in protest against “unhygienic and stinky” working conditions.

They have accused the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health of failing to comply with occupational health and safety regulations.

Since Monday, no post-mortems have been conducted there and mortuary staff have refused to fetch bodies from city hospitals, including Addington, King Edward VIII and Inkosi Albert Luthuli.

Families were also not being allowed to identify loved ones at the mortuary.

A source at the mortuary said more than 30 bodies were awaiting post-mortems, while a further 30 were awaiting paupers’ burial.

It is unclear how many bodies are awaiting collection from state hospitals. The bodies stored for paupers’ burials were reported to be decomposing, because the fridges were not working.

The stench was so strong, it had permeated the mortuary, and even went outside the building, the source said.

Private pathologist, Steve Naidoo, described the situation at the mortuary as an occupational health crisis.

A similar crisis prevailed in 2010, he said.

“I heard about the reasons for the strike. It is a distasteful and unhealthy environment for anyone to work in. It is even worse for the families who have to go in and identify bodies.”

Naidoo blamed poor management and strict protocol not being adhered to at the mortuary.

While pathologists were on duty, no work could be done without the help of the forensic pathology officers, the source said.

He said they were tired of complaining about the defective equipment, lack of protective gear and poor working conditions.

“The fridges where the bodies for pauper burials are stored, are not working properly,” the source said.

“The stench is unbearable. Because the bodies have been stored for so long with poor refrigeration, decomposition has set in. Staff are refusing to go into that section.”

The source said bodies were “piled one on top of the other”.

“There is not enough space because of the defective fridges. As a result of staff refusing to access that area, the paperwork for the pauper burials cannot be completed.

“More and more bodies are now piling up.”

The source said while the pathologists were willing to work, they could not conduct post-mortems without the assistance of forensic pathology officers.

The provincial secretary of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), Zola Saphetha, said the more than 40 workers at the mortuary had complained of the “unhygienic and stinky” conditions.

He confirmed claims that the fridges were not working properly and that the stench had become unbearable.

“The taps that are used to wash bodies are also broken,” Saphetha said.

“When the workers wash bodies, the water, mixed with blood, sprays on to them. They do not have protective gear. This is a serious health risk and violation.”

He said their mandate to the KZN Department of Health was very clear: create a safe and hygienic environment for workers.

“If they don’t, we cannot encourage workers to go back to work. They must be given the right tools to effect their jobs properly.”

Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo said today through his spokesman, Sam Mkhwanazi, the issue of danger allowance was being addressed by the National Bargaining Council.

On overtime, he acknowledged that payment in some cases had been delayed. In other cases, the employees’ overtime claims exceeded the capped amount of 30 percent of their salary.

“In these cases the request for payment had to go to the accounting officer for approval – hence the delay.”

Dhlomo said that the backlog of pauper burials was a result of the lengthy administration process by police, health and Department of Home Affairs officials.

“We are looking at ways to fast-track this process,” he said.

KZN violence monitor, Mary De Haas, described the situation at the mortuary as disgraceful.

“Enough is enough. The entire mortuary staff, including its management, should be fired,” De Haas said.

“They must be replaced with trained professionals who can do the job.”

De Haas said the dignity of the dead and the grieving families was also being impaired by the poor running of the mortuary.

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‘We’re still waiting for body’

A Phoenix family say they have been waiting for their relative’s body to be fetched from King Edward VIII Hospital since Saturday.

Jayshree Dhannilall and her husband, Stars Govender, were shot outside their home in Phoenix two weeks ago. Govender died at the scene. His funeral was held on Sunday. Dhannilall died at King Edward hospital on Saturday.

Their relative, Maggie Naidoo, said Dhannilall’s funeral was scheduled for Tuesday morning.

The church was booked, a caterer had been hired, flowers had been bought, friends and family had taken leave from work and others had travelled from Johannesburg for the funeral, Naidoo said.

“On Saturday, the hospital told us that the post-mortem would only be done on Monday. But they said the body would be fetched by the mortuary staff. It never was.”

She said that when they arrived at the hospital on Monday morning, they were told that the mortuary van was on its way.

“We waited and waited, but they never pitched. They did not even tell us that they were not coming,” she said. “We eventually left the hospital at 4pm and went to the mortuary to make enquiries. That was when we found out about the strike.”

She said they had hoped the post-mortem would have been done by Monday evening.

“By Tuesday morning, we were in a crisis. The body had still not been fetched from the hospital. I called the MEC’s office and was told that there was nothing they could do about the strike.”

With two deaths in the family, the family had been stressed and the delay in Dhannilall’s funeral had further upset her children, she said.

“The bottom line was that nobody cared. This is an essential service. They should not be on strike. The health department in this province is pathetic.”

Naidoo said it was unclear when the body would be released to them.

“We still have to identify the body, and then it has to go for a post-mortem. It could be days before the funeral (is held).”

Rekha Maharaj, of Thekwini Funeral Services on Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street, said they had been waiting for two bodies to be released from the mortuary since Monday.

She said one of the bodies needed to be transported to Tanzania.

When she called the mortuary on Monday, a worker told her that the fridges were “overloaded with bodies” and the “stench was unbearable”.

“The worker said they refused to go into the mortuary under those conditions.”

Maharaj said there was no indication when the bodies would be released to them.

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Morgue disruptions

* September 2010: Workers at the Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary threatened to strike because of overcrowding. The mortuary can accommodate 160 bodies, but had more than 180. Staff had to put some of the bodies on stretchers instead of trays.

* March 2011: Mortuary staff threatened to strike, because of the poor working conditions.

* July 2012: Post-mortems at the Phoenix and Magwaza Maphalala Street mortuaries were cancelled after protective gear and medical stock ran dry – and staff allegedly “disappeared”.

* August 2012: Supply chain management issues and staff dissatisfaction continue to plague the two mortuaries in KZN. Among the concerns were demotivated staff, the poor state of mortuary vehicles, management problems, and public dissatisfaction with the quality of service.

* February 2013: Workers at the Magwaza Maphalala Street mortuary down tools over “unhygienic and stinky” working conditions.