Call to rotate 'bored' mortuary workers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 October, 2010, 12:00am

Mortuary staff should be rotated to other posts on a regular basis to make their jobs less mundane and cut down on the chances of blunders occurring, an industry reviewer said.

Concerns over the workload and service quality of mortuary staff were highlighted once again this week when the body of a 77-year-old woman was subjected to an unnecessary autopsy due to a chain of administrative errors by staff at Fu Shan Public Mortuary.

Government officials said a series of mortuary mishaps in recent years were not due to staff shortages and that workloads were appropriate. According to the Department of Health, 19 staff members at Fu Shan mortuary were responsible for dealing with about 3,000 bodies a year, which means two staff members deal with a body per day on average. The mortuary employs 10 attendants, a technician, two officers, two doctors, three senior doctors and a consultant doctor. Of the 3,000 bodies, only about half require post-mortem examinations, according to government data.

Aaron Wan Chi-keung, the convenor of a committee set up to investigate a body mix-up at Fu Shan Public Mortuary in 2006, said although mortuary jobs were 'obviously mundane and boring', that was not an excuse for making mistakes.

'Mortuary jobs are simple and require minimal skills. As long as one's heart is in the job, there is no reason to commit any mistakes,' he said.

While workers should change their attitude, administrators should also think about how they could make the job less boring.

Hong Kong could learn from Australia, where mortuaries were attached to research or transplant facilities. Doctors could help in doing research, whereas junior staff could be rotated to posts where they could meet more people. 'With some regular rotations, the chance of making errors would be lower,' he said.

Health officials revealed on Wednesday that an autopsy was mistakenly performed on the body of a 77-year-old woman after staff printed out her forms and documents instead of those relating to the body of a 65-year-old man.

A day before the autopsy, the woman's family had specially requested that the coroner exempt the woman's body from a post-mortem examination.

A lawyer said the staff could be held legally liable and the woman's family could seek compensation for negligence.

There are three public mortuaries in the city but blunders at Fu Shan have hit the news. In 2006, the wrong body was handed over for cremation to the wife of a man who had died. By the time the mistake was discovered, the body of the woman's husband had already been cremated by another family.