Hospital dental hygienists are threatening to down tools, claiming they are not being offered proper protection against the new coronavirus.

Ten staff workers returned to their jobs at Mater Dei Hospital on Wednesday, after spending weeks on redeployment testing patients for COVID-19.

However, they say they were not provided with adequate protective workwear by hospital management.

The dispute centres around work that could cause potentially virus-spreading droplets to spray from the patient’s mouth, according to Gian Paul Gauci, assistant director of UĦM Voice of the Workers.

He said: “This is performed mainly by the dental hygienists and can cause droplets to be expelled from the patients’ mouth, putting the hygienist at risk if the patient is COVID positive.”

UĦM says it repeatedly asked management at Mater Dei to stick to European Centre for Disease Control guidelines, which ensure employees wear full protective headwear such as FFP3 masks.

This amounts to just €120 a week. We believe this is not too much to ask.

However, it says management is refusing to provide the masks, saying they are unnecessary. One worker, who asked to remain anonymous, told Times of Malta that staff have been told by management that instead of cleaning teeth with a piece of equipment, known as an ultra-sonic scaler, they should do so by hand.

“This takes a lot more time and is uncomfortable for the patient. It can also lead to repetitive strain injury for the hygienist.”

The same worker believes it would also put both staff members and patients at risk of infection.

“If appointments take more time, then it is longer between wipe downs and could allow COVID-19 to settle on surfaces,” the worker added.

Union members say despite repeated attempts to speak to management at the hospital, they have been ignored. They believe the move is a cost-saving measure, but should not come at the expense of employees or patient health.

“The FFP3 masks cost around €5 each and we would need four a day, over a six-day week,” the staff member said.

“This amounts to just €120 a week. We believe this is not too much to ask.”

A spokeswoman for the health ministry said there is no shortage of PPE equipment at Mater Dei Hospital nor was the decision a cost-saving measure.

She said patients who tested positive for COVID-19 would not be given a dental appointment to protect the staff.

She also confirmed that hygienists had been offered the option of carrying out teeth cleaning and other similar treatments by hand if they were concerned about the risk of infectious droplets.

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