Lesline Alleyne recalls the telephone call she received at home informing her that nursing colleague Nelia Laroza had succumbed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). “It’s the most horrific thing for a co-worker to die and to know that it happened because of work. It hurts a lot. No one should ever lose their life for their profession.”
Alleyne, with 14 years of nursing experience, is a member of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) Local 006, a joint health and safety committee certified member at her workplace and chairperson of her Local’s health and safety committee.
SARS forced the closure of several Toronto area hospitals and claimed the lives of 44, including two nurses, Nelia Laroza and Tecla Lin, both ONA members.
When questioned by several nursing staff concerned for their health, Alleyne was quick to reassure them of their rights under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
. At the height of the crisis in early June she was approached the same day by two ONA colleagues, both of whom had failed fit tests administered to ensure protective masks fit and perform effectively. Both nurses said they felt unsafe working without proper protective equipment. The first nurse was sent home with pay, the second was challenged because hospital administrators believed she was less likely to be exposed to SARS working on the hospital’s psychiatric ward. Later, three patients and one nurse on that ward would develop SARS.
Upon investigation, the Ministry of Labour upheld the nurse’s work refusal and issued orders to the employer to provide protective equipment in accordance with provincial SARS directives. Of the incident Alleyne says, “I was there to support our members. They had the courage to speak up when they believed their health was endangered. They’re the real heroes.”
Alleyne also worked for three weeks on a SARS unit unaware initially that she too should be subject to fit testing. Like many she says she volunteered to work on the ward because many of the patients were nursing colleagues who had succumbed to the illness. At one point in May she reports that seven nurses on one unit were off sick with SARS.
The experience has left Alleyne with lessons which in hindsight she says appear clearer. Since, she has courageously spoken before the Campbell Commission whose mandate is to investigate the SARS crisis and make recommendations.
Alleyne thinks the experience has given the nursing profession more of the respect it deserves and hopes this will foster greater compliance with and enforcement of health and safety requirements in health care facilities. She’s prepared to fight for that. From SARS she’s learned a precious lesson. “I’m no longer willing to just let things go. After my co-workers spoke out and then seeing a friend and colleague die made me realize that we have to have the courage to change things. When we know about a hazard we have to prevent it. In the end we make it safe for everyone,” she emphasizes, “from the Chief Executive Officer to each and every contract worker.”
Barb Wahl is president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association. “Lesline is a tremendous support to her members. She is not only committed to her profession but through her activism in her workplace and Local she’s determined that ONA members know and exercise their rights to a safe and healthy work environment. Once she’s aware of a problem Lesline can be relied upon to get a resolve.”