The Auckland District Health Board has ignored long-running tensions between staff at its mortuary, leading to allegations of bullying and disrespectful behaviour towards bodies, the Medical Laboratory Workers Union says.
WorkSafe is investigating complaints from two British mortuary technicians, who claim they were picked on by senior staff and then ostracised by other workers for speaking out.
The complainants also alleged their co-workers made disparaging comments about suicide victims, people with disabilities and gay people, whose bodies were in their care.
Medical Laboratory Workers Union national secretary Deborah Powell said there had been "tensions" at the mortuary for about four years, but the Auckland DHB had failed to do anything about it.
"I don't think they've handled them at all. That's been the problem. The issues have not been escalated up the chain quickly enough... and that's why we're in the mess we are in," she said.
Some of the allegations could have stemmed from cultural and workplace differences between New Zealand and England, she said.
For example, mortuary technicians in New Zealand did more forensic and coronial work while their English colleagues did more repair work once post mortems had been done.
Auckland City Hospital's mortuary was a busy place but understaffed, which might also have contributed to the stress, she said.
Dr Powell said in the 20 years she had been working with staff at the mortuary, she had always been impressed with the respect and care given to the deceased.
"Yes, there is black humour. One of the ways people cope in this sort of environment is to have a dark sense of humor, but I've never known it to be directed at the people in their care."
Funeral Directors Association chief executive Katrina Shanks said mortuary workers had a strict code of conduct and a duty of care to the deceased.
The allegations could be symptomatic of the chronic shortage of pathology staff that was putting workers under stress, she said.
Auckland DHB said it could not comment on "unsubstantiated hearsay" for legal reasons but said issues brought to its attention were always investigated.
The Chief Coroner's Office, which contracts the Auckland DHB to carry out mortuary services, said it had sought and received reassurances from the DHB about the way that it treated bodies in its care.
Full statement from the Auckland DHB
Auckland DHB Forensic Pathology has an accredited mortuary and the work undertaken by the team is clinically excellent, and meets all the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requirements.
We stand behind the quality of the technical and clinical work of our people, and are proud of the respectful and caring way they carry out their jobs in every area of the organisation.
For legal reasons we are not able to comment on unsubstantiated hearsay in respect to named individuals.
What we can say is that in the case of Forensic Pathology, any issues that are brought to our attention are always investigated and appropriate actions taken, as they are within the rest of the DHB.
Auckland DHB believes strongly in providing a safe, supportive and productive environment for our people, patients and whānau. We have done, and continue to do, extensive work on improving our culture.
This includes values-based work, and the recently launched 'Speak Up' programme, aligned with the Royal College of Surgeons 'Operate with Respect' campaign, it encourages all employees to speak up if they encounter bullying in the work place.
Additionally, all medical professionals work under a code of conduct that covers their responsibilities to their patients, colleagues and profession.
We are proud that our recent employee engagement survey highlights that most Auckland DHB staff (78 percent of respondents) are happy to speak up if they notice an error, and 84 percent of respondents say their team works well together to provide a great service. Culture change takes time and we continue to invest in this important area.