5 questions about pharmacy employee rights

High dispensing rates, customer abuse, store cleaning… what are your rights to a healthy and safe pharmacy workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Pharmacy employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace and consult employees regarding health matters, said experts during a Facebook Live session hosted by Professional Pharmacists Australia (PPA) which explored pharmacy employee rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

PPA president Geoff March acknowledged pharmacists’ efforts during the pandemic, and highlighted the massive increase in workloads and script numbers they have had to deal with in recent months, with very little extra staff being put on.

“We saw complaints about poor infection control,” he said. “We conducted a survey … exploring people’s intentions to remain in pharmacy, 51% said they would happily remain and the rest were thinking about leaving. That was pretty scary.

“The outcome of the survey means we need a better understanding of the health and safety role for both employers and employees.”

Dominic Melling, lead occupational health and safety organiser with the Victorian Trades Hall Council, shared the importance of electing a health and safety representative in a workplace.

“A health and safety representative is someone who is elected by their designated work group,” Mr Melling explained.

“The employer should be respecting that this is someone who is coming off the shop floor. It is an elected position, recognised under statutes. You have the right to be consulted if the employer is changing things around that may affect workers health and safety… The employees have a right but the representative has a particular right to be consulted.”

In the PPA survey, 21% of respondents said that there were no procedures for cleaning and about 44% said they didn’t have enough time for cleaning and disinfection, said Dr March.

1. What obligation does an employer have to ensure time and resources to clean?

“Particularly in a pandemic but also generally, cleaning is important,” said Mr Melling.

“In pharmacies, retail pharmacies in particular, I imagine over the course of the day you have a lot of people who are coming in who are sick and could pass on what they’re carrying.

“You should be looking at having procedures in the workplaces about how common areas are cleaned. Pharmacies should be ensuring that there are adequate controls … cleaning and disinfecting should be something every pharmacy should [be making sure of]. Saying that there’s not enough time is not good enough. If everyone is so busy that there is no time for cleaning, then the work system needs to be re-assessed because that’s too below the bar, it’s not acceptable,” he said.

Mr Melling added that any pharmacy workers have an ability to raise their concerns with their employer.

He encouraged employees to discuss the issue with each other, and also consider electing a health and safety representative and forming a designated working group.

“Health and safety reps have the right to be consulted, the right to access information, the right to inspect the areas that your designated working group works – generally the immediate vicinity of the retail store, the right to monitor [controls] to ensure they’re done in accordance with the procedures agreed. They’re also allowed to provide provisional notice that the employer has to fix an issue with 10 days.”

2. How can you convince owners to do something about high dispensing rates?

One webinar commenter said “150 rx per shift as benchmark per pharmacist by Pharmacy Board and VPA is ruining our health, impossible to achieve, constant ringing phones not only causes distractions but also act as auditory hazards”.

Another said: “Workloads are especially heavy with more than usual numbers of staff taking sick leave, due to extra cautions – people with nasty cold home waiting for negative test results.”

Mr Melling acknowledged that workload constitutes a health and safety issue.

“Workload that is too great, that forces people to rush and do things quickly, puts stress on people, causes burnout, it doesn’t benefit the worker in the long-term and doesn’t benefit the employer. Too much workload is a hazard. We’ve identified the hazard, now under the law we have a duty to put some controls over that hazard.

“Controls could be sitting down with the employer about what is reasonable amount of work to do during a shift, and getting the working group to assess that.”

3. How can employers reduce workplace stress?

A petition currently before Parliament and also running on Change.org is calling for hazard allowance and tax-free income for “bombarded” pharmacists and pharmacy staff.

The authors cite fears of infection with COVID-19 and the stress of filling hundreds of scripts per day.

“Additionally, we have been abused, punched, spat on, and even had medicine bottles thrown at us by patients when we cannot fulfil their request either due to shortage of medicines or fear of stockpiling,” say the authors.

Before you deal with idea of stress, you need to pinpoint what’s causing that, said Mr Melling.

“It could be workload, occupational violence in the pharmacy and that’s what’s causing stress or anxiety. It could be the pandemic – the stress of working in an environment where you’re dealing with a lot of sick people who may or may not infect you, and that could be causing stress.

“It’s about looking at controls of how to deal with that stress.

“Occupational violence – if you have a customer causing a scene, is there a security guard onsite? Is he there to become involved if someone gets aggressive? If someone gets physically violent, what procedures has the employer put in place to protect the employees?

“Under OH&S legislation, the employer has the primary duty to ensure a safe workplace. If a patron jumps the counter, is there a safe room for the pharmacist to go into? Can the pharmacist call the police? All of those things – having distancing marks on the ground, providing hand sanitiser, and ensuring that these controls are adequate and if there is monitoring of these.”

4. What is the employer’s responsibility regarding verbal abuse?

No one should be subject to verbal abuse in the workplace, said Mr Melling.

“That is not acceptable. The first thing I’d be doing as a health or safety rep, or as an employee, is ask what has the employer put in place to deal with verbal abuse? Are you just expected to stand there and cop it? Or are their controls and ways to ensure this doesn’t occur? When it does occur – and members of the public are notoriously difficult to control – the employer has a duty to provide a safe workplace. Is there a proper way to report the abuse?” he said.

5. Can employees choose to wear masks, even though the employer may not agree or it’s not part of the shop policy?

If you want to wear a mask, put a mask on, said Mr Melling.

“That goes back to the hazard identification – why does someone feel like there is a need to wear a mask? Are they being put in a situation where they’re more likely to be exposed? Are there other controls the employer has put in place? For example those big screens between the register attendant and the customers; is that going to be sufficient to separate them?”

The final step in the hazard reduction line is personal protective equipment, he said.

“Certainly in healthcare there’s certain situations where it’s 100% necessary, but PPE is the final step in hazard control. The employer should be saying, you don’t need to wear a mask because we’ve done all these things to protect you from hazards. We’ve put up screens, got social distancing dots on the floor, no cash in the store, so we don’t think PPE or a mask is going to give you protection because we’ve put in all things in place that are higher order controls.”

Watch the full webinar here

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1 Comment

  1. Red Pill

    Most pharmacies in Sydney have not implemented a single thing. No hand sanitiser, no protective screen, no gloves or face masks for staff. Some couldn’t even get paper towels to wipe down the benchtops.
    There’s been no limit on the number of people entering the pharmacy. NO marking on the floor when queuing.
    Some owners even believe this is nothing but a flu and the government is overreacting.
    Someone said earlier our profession should have been better prepared. I say our profession died a long time ago. These days it’s all about profits and KPIs.

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