SEVERE overcrowding in the emergency department of one of Dublin's biggest hospitals has left nurses "gravely concerned" about the safety of patients.
Nurses at Beaumont hospital said they are "now at breaking point" with 41 patients awaiting treatment on trolleys yesterday morning alone.
The nurses staged the first in a series of lunchtime protests at the gates of the hospital yesterday to highlight a crisis in emergency care they view as being more serious than it was in 2006 when a national health emergency was declared.
Nurse Shona O'Sullivan from Swords said under-staffing at Beaumont has never been this bad in her 10 years at the hospital.
"Patients on chairs, patients on trolleys, patients everywhere, it is disgusting. It is not a safe environment to work in," she said. "I worked in Scotland for seven years in A&E and I thought the National Health Service (NHS) was the worst in the world but can I tell you this is a third world country in terms of health care."
She said there can be up to 110 patients in the emergency department with only seven staff to see them.
"We are dealing with it because we have to. We are worked off our feet, we are run ragged, we don't get breaks and we do the best that we can," she said. The Irish Nurse and Midwives Organisation's (INMO) Industrial Relations Officer Lorraine Monaghan said the level of overcrowding and under-staffing on a daily basis in the hospital is compromising nurses' ability to care for patients.
"Our members are seriously concerned that there will be a major catastrophe if urgent action is not taken," she said.
She said she will be meeting with members to set a date to vote on the possibility of industrial action.
"In the month of November, there was 729 patients on trolleys, that is the highest number nationally and our members can no longer tolerate the situation because it is unsafe".
She said patients can wait for three to four days in the Emergency Department for a hospital bed to become available.
"You have to remember an emergency department is operating 24/7 so these acutely ill and elderly patients are waiting for days on end on trolleys and chairs in frantic conditions," she said.
"They have no privacy, they have no dignity. They are being treated in a corridor in full view of everyone so it is degrading for the patients. They are suffering and it is not fair."
The INMO is calling on hospital management to devise "a strategic action plan" to address overcrowding and fill existing nursing vacancies as a matter of urgency.
They called on the Minister for Health and the HSE to immediately bring forward funding to allow patients who have completed the acute phase of their care to move to a more appropriate setting, either at home with necessary supports or to a community bed.
A statement from Beaumont said the hospital has undertaken initiatives intended to improve the patient pathway through the hospital with all available beds now open.
It said the hospital currently has over 50 nursing vacancies however "extensive recruitment efforts at home, and more recently in the UK, take up of these posts has been very slow".
A spokesman for the Department of Health said additional funding of €25m was provided in the estimates for 2015 to alleviate the problem of delayed discharges in acute hospitals.
Meanwhile, a HSE spokesperson said it works on an ongoing basis with all acute hospitals and Hospital Groups to respond, and find solutions, to capacity problems in Emergency Departments.