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When bad workers play the race card

'YOU'RE nothing but an Irish racist bully; you talk down to me because I'm black!"

I stayed seated at my desk while the outraged nurse towered above me. With her arms akimbo and voice-a-bellow, I might have been cowed by her stance, except with this particular person, unfortunately, it was nothing new.

I stayed silent for a while and just bided my time, watching her. She had uttered the magic word used by many care staff and nurses I'd met in my 25-year nursing career to get them out of trouble -- 'racist'.

This nurse wasn't racist. Nope. She didn't care what race the staff of the institution were -- Polish, Filipino, and Irish staff, all were intimidated, sulked at and terrorised in equal fashion.

She wasn't ageist either. It didn't matter what age the patients were, all were pulled roughly into or out of their chairs, beds or wheelchairs; and name calling of the more confused, such as 'stupid', 'liar' and 'crazy' were commonplace. And this was only the start of her list of attributes.

To my shame, yes, I was racist. If she had been an Irish nurse, I would not only have read her the riot act, I would also have got her suspended and reported her to the Nursing Board's Fitness to Practise committee on first encountering her behaviour. This was at least my third attempt to reason with her. Sometimes, where ignorance is bliss, the folly of wisdom makes cowards of us all.

Two other foreign workers were employed in another institution where I spent time on the staff. Their problem was that they were constantly late for work and exhausted when they did turn up. They worked separate shifts, one the day and the other the night. Their obvious exhaustion made them perpetually irritable and short-tempered.

When at last, after numerous complaints from staff of different ethnic origins, a senior manager called one of them aside for a chat, the excuse was enlightening. Apparently, the couple had small children, but because their object in working was to save as much money as possible to send back to their native country in preparation for going home, they would not countenance spending money on child-minders.

Therefore, when one arrived to work with the children in the car, the other took over at the end of the shift. The obvious exhaustion and time delay factors aside, child safety -- when the night duty parent was grabbing a few hours' sleep -- raised serious issues. Apparently the television was as overworked as the parents. Numerous diplomatic efforts were made by the manager to highlight the difficulties from the perspective of the institution where they worked.

A doctor from an African country was less than fastidious when it came to hand-washing between patients. He was also curt to the point of rudeness -- not a great attitude to have in any doctor. In fact, he usually bypassed the 'time-wasting' cleanliness in favour of getting the work done.

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The issue of infection control, especially with open wounds, was of huge concern to other staff, but insane as it may sound now, none of us felt able to tackle him. This was in the pre-MRSA publicity days. We complained and though he was eventually dealt with, we felt guilty for having delayed at all in complaining.

Our delay was possibly because we feared being accused of racism and, as a result, we allowed that fear to take second place to good professional judgement. Worse, there may have been an element of racism on our part in that subconsciously we thought that perhaps, because of his background, his hygiene training might not have been as good as our own. What we should have realised straightaway was that he was a lazy, grumpy sod.

And in not acting because of fear of being thought racist, we did ourselves and, more importantly, our patients, a disservice.

(The author, who can't be named, has been a medical professional for many years.)

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