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Rural workers facing long ambulance waits: forest ombudsman

Injured forestry workers in remote areas of B.C. often wait hours for medical care because of “serious gaps” in the province’s air-ambulance service, a new report says. B.C.
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The report urges the province to expand the roles of first responders to allow them to transport accident victims.

Injured forestry workers in remote areas of B.C. often wait hours for medical care because of “serious gaps” in the province’s air-ambulance service, a new report says.

B.C. Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris cited the case of Esko Saarinen, a tree faller from Vancouver Island, who had a leg crushed by a tree while working on Haida Gwaii in 2014.

It took more than five hours for Saarinen to get to a hospital in Queen Charlotte City — a distance that would have taken about 20 minutes by helicopter — and another six hours to reach Vancouver.

“And not only did his journey take a total of 11 hours, but it included two separate boat trips, a stint riding in a mechanic’s vehicle over an unserviced resource road and an hour of waiting before being told that a helicopter was not being sent,” states the 13-page review, Will It Be There: A Report on Helicopter Emergency Medical Services in B.C.

Saarinen eventually had his leg amputated below the knee, “a result that might have been avoided had he been transported to hospital in a timely manner,” the report said.

Harris, a former Liberal cabinet minister and Skeena MLA, said gaps in the system threaten “the safety of forestry workers — as well as residents — who seemingly have little or no guarantee that they will have access to timely medical transportation in the event of an emergency.”

The report calls for mandated response times and notes that Alaska and Washington, which have similar geography to B.C., require that injured residents can get to a trauma centre within one hour.

“Washington state’s a great example,” Harris said in an interview. “They just legislated that services have to be there that ensure their public gets access.”

Harris said there are no technical or infrastructure barriers to prevent such guarantees in B.C.

“The decision by government not to provide those services is simply a choice.”

Linda Lupini, executive vice-president of B.C. Emergency Health Services, said she shares the goal of “providing care to patients no matter where they are located,” but that obstacles exist.

“The forest industry presents inherent risks and, in many cases, it may not be safe, or practical, to send paramedics and air-ambulance pilots into these areas,” she said in a statement.

Lupini said WorkSafe B.C. requires employers to get injured workers out of remote areas. “Our paramedics currently respond to patients only from a safe, clear area.”

Harris recommended the province expand the roles of first responders to allow them to transport accident victims.

He also called for increased use of “hoisting,” in which an injured person is lifted from an accident, placed inside a helicopter and flown to a hospital.

B.C. currently relies largely on “longlining,” where the patient is suspended on a cable outside a helicopter, move to a different location and then transferred to a ground ambulance or another helicopter. Harris argues that expanding the use of hoisting, while more expensive, would eliminate transfers, reduce response times and improve patient outcomes.

North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice, who represents Haida Gwaii, said the Saarinen case highlights the inequities in rural healthcare.

“Roger Harris’s proposal to legislate minimum-response times would have addressed that fellow’s issues and he might have a leg today,” she said. “I think that’s pretty telling.”

Rice, the NDP’s spokeswoman on northern and rural health, said people living in the north pay taxes and medical services plan premiums like everyone else.

“To say: ‘Well you choose to live in the north and you should expect lesser care,’” well, that just contributes to the whole urbanization of our province,” she said. “There’s no one going to be in the resource sector doing resource work if they can’t expect to get care.”

lkines@timescolonist.com