Whistle blown on butchers and hospital blood boxes

POTENTIALLY contaminated cardboard boxes from Lismore Hospital were regularly given to local butchers to make home deliveries of raw meat.

The Northern Star last week told the story of Alex Charles, a cleaner who lost a legal bid to have his job reinstated after blowing the whistle on a "workplace health and safety risk" at the hospital in 2011.

Workers Compensation Commission records from 2014 reveal the complaint related to discarded boxes - including, according to Mr Charles, containers used to transport intravenous fluids - being sent to up to three butcher's shops to be used to transport meat.

It happened for about a decade.

"(Mr Charles) refused to be part of putting aside the boxes, which he states were potentially contaminated with waste from other material in the loading dock, as he felt there was a public health risk in using them to pack raw meat for human consumption," the commission heard.

Mr Charles said he told the cleaning manager of his concerns in July 2011 but she failed to act.

He said he took the matter to the hospital's infectious control manager and was later told boxes could no longer be taken from the infectious waste trolley, but the wards and the bed pan room were still fair game.

Mr Charles was unhappy with the outcome and called one of the recipient butchers, who said he would no longer accept the boxes.

He also contacted the Independent Commission Against Corruption and was classified as a protected person, meaning he was shielded by law from reprisals for blowing the whistle.

About a month later Mr Charles wrote to hospital management complaining of bullying and harassment by his senior co-worker who had been collecting the boxes since 1990.

The letter claimed the co-worker had insulted Mr Charles's wife and had told another staff member he would "punch that guy out when he's out of the cameras".

The co-worker denied either action.

He said he received no financial benefit for supplying the boxes to the butchers.

A supervisor also put in a complaint against Mr Charles, claiming his work sheet had falsely been "ticked off" by someone other than her.

"(Mr Charles) states that he is concerned that the complaints began to be raised against him after he had 'blown the whistle' about the boxes issue," the commission heard.

Another worker also lodged a complaint against Mr Charles, and he soon after took a leave of absence after being diagnosed with work-related stress.

When he returned he noticed a reduction in his shifts and claimed to receive "continual harassment".

"Over the last six months of 2012 and into 2013, the applicant's shifts were still significantly reduced, and he was at work less often," arbitrator Kerry Haddock said.

The complaints against him kept piling up - for alleged verbal attacks, aggressive behaviour and "inappropriate behaviour" that was never fully explained.

He received three separate complaints in one day in March 2013.

"He states that before he '(blew) the whistle on this situation at Lismore Base Hospital' there had been no complaints about his behaviour in any workplace," the documents state.

Co-workers said Mr Charles was a vexatious litigant and there was no evidence any staff member had been coerced into making complaints about his behaviour.

The hospital did not deny Mr Charles had sustained psychological injury during his employment, but questioned the timing of its onset.

Arbitrator Ms Haddock rejected the hospital's claim Mr Charles's injury was the result of justified disciplinary action.

She ordered the hospital to compensate Mr Charles with a weekly payment based on his wages.

NNSW LHD acting chief executive officer Annette Symes said there was no indication the boxes in question were contaminated.

"Following concerns raised by Mr Alex Charles, the NNSW LHD subsequently reviewed its practices of discarding empty cardboard boxes, resulting in workplace practices changing and staff receiving advice and training on the need to comply with appropriate disposal of packaging," she said.

"While the Workers Compensation Commission determined that Mr Charles had incurred a psychological injury, there was no determination that Mr Charles had experienced bullying."

Mr Charles last month lodged an application for unfair dismissal, hoping to regain work at a hospital outside Lismore but still under the Northern NSW Local Health District banner.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission found he had not been unfairly dismissed. Rather, he was simply "separated" from the casual pool because he had not worked for more than six months. -APN NEWSDESK

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