RAIGMORE Hospital security guards have demanded they are provided with stab-proof vests amid what they claim are rising rates of violence against staff.
Management has refused the request and at the same time played down union concerns about big gaps in CCTV coverage at the Inverness hospital.
The issues have been highlighted by the GMB union – which represents nine of the 10 security staff employed at Raigmore – after concerns over planned cost-cutting by NHS Highland which could see two-person cover for night shifts reduced to solo outings from next year.
The CCTV faults coincide with what the union says are an increasing number of attacks on staff, with the rate of "security events" at Raigmore running at more than 1000 per year, or up to 12 per week.
The union claims there are an average of two or three incidents a month involving knives and says almost a third of the hospital’s video recorders have been out of action in recent days – 24 out of 64 cameras – raising further concerns about staff safety as well as the possibility of prosecuting violent offenders or helping trace missing vulnerable patients.
The issues have been raised in discussions between staff and management about cost-cutting proposals by cash-strapped NHS Highland, which made budget savings of £35 million last year and last month requested a £15 million government bail-out.
New contract proposals for security teams could see shifts change from the current 12 hours to an eight-hour pattern. An audit of their role also concluded it was excessive to have two on together overnight.
A management letter stated in Janu-ary it was "apparent that the security officers’ rota does not meet the needs of the service" but the GMB maintains that it would be "utter nonsense" to claim the guards were not busy.
GMB regional officer Liz Gordon added: "Our members have experienced a steady increase in the frequency of violence and aggression against hospital staff. A polo neck and fleece are hardly protection.
"Use of weapons is on the increase."
However, a spokeswoman for NHS Highland said the GMB’s figures "need to be taken with caution as there are many reasons for violence and aggression against staff, including an elderly population with cognitive impairment who present with challenging behaviour."
Those incidents, she said, are generally "managed by nursing staff on the wards".
And she said a risk assessment on the subject of stab-proof vests carried out five years ago deemed they were "not necessary" at that time.
She insisted "that remains the case" today.
On the matter of CCTV she acknowledged that individual cameras do go down "on occasion", but that these failures were reported and repaired "as soon as possible".
And she added: "The service is at the very early stages of organisational change in relation to review of shift patterns."
Health unions refused to comment on questions of staff safety at Raigmore but Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain said: "I’d call on the management to make sure the correct equipment, whether protective equipment or CCTV, is available and widely used."