Staff at the Medway Maritime Hospital in Kent, have been banned from using social networking website Facebook during working hours.

The trust says the move is aimed at monitoring internet usage and optimising efficiency, denying reports the website was responsible for slowing down the hospital’s computer systems.

Andy Horne, chief executive at Medway NHS Trust said, “Recently a decision was taken by the IT and operations departments of Medway NHS Trust, to add a number of sites, including, to the restricted list. This is part of work ongoing within the trust to monitor internet usage and optimise efficiency.

“While the trust has no objection to staff accessing the internet for personal reasons during breaks, we reserve the right to limit access in any way we deem necessary, and maintain a strict policy of correct and acceptable internet usage.”

Facebook was added to the trust’s list of restricted websites as part of ongoing work to monitor internet usage by staff and ensure they don’t waste work time on the net.

The trust sent a global email to all staff informing them the new restriction had been put in place, and that staff may only log onto the site from trust computers outside of working hours.

Some staff have set up a group on Facebook to protest against the ban. Horne added: “Should any member of staff have valid reasons why they should need to access any site which may currently be restricted, they are invited to contact director of operations, Ellen Ryabov, in order to discuss these further.”

Other hospitals have also begun monitoring internet usage to stop staff from spending time using networking sites such as Facebook.

Ipswich Hospital is one of them. Jan Rowsell, spokeswoman for the hospital, said: “Moderate personal use of the internet is allowed and is carefully monitored.

“We take the view that we want to be supportive to staff and we do not allow access to any social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and MSN, partly because we believe it’s better to prevent staff from getting into trouble by spending a long time on those websites. We know they can be engaging and time-consuming.”

Many trusts have social networking groups on the Facebook website. A search of the keyword NHS brings up over 500 groups, including one for Connecting for Health.

Connecting for Health told EHI that it was up to individual trusts to decide which sites they allow staff to view and how they monitor internet usage.

A survey by online security firm SurfControl found that companies were losing an estimated £2bn through poor productivity due to use of sites such as Facebook.

The figure was calculated by looking at the theoretical cost if one employee in every company spent an hour on Facebook each day instead of working.

In Medway, staff who try and log onto will be greeted with an ‘access has been denied’ message.

Almost 80 staff members have joined a Facebook group campaigning for the website to be allowed again.

The TUC trade union said employers may be over reacting to social networking sites by banning them from using the site at work.

A survey of 1,000 people by the union found that the vast majority of Facebook users do not log onto the site at work at all, with only 17% of people saying that they access the site from work.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development told EHI that the issue was a large bone of contention with different employers having different opinions on the benefits and problems that sites such as Facebook could present in the workplace.

A series of forums are live on the institute’s website where members have been thrashing out the pros and cons of the use of social networking sites.