Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ambulance crash blamed on overwork

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BRANDON -- The crash of an ambulance carrying two paramedics who feel asleep while driving on the highway is being blamed on work-related fatigue.

Their union says some rural paramedics are exhausted after working for too long without an opportunity to sleep.

It's a scenario that's putting patients, the public and paramedics at risk, says the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.

"We're very thankful that no one was harmed in this incident," said Wayne Chacun, a component director with the union who represents paramedics. "Our fear is that someone will be killed in a future incident if this doesn't change."

RCMP confirm an ambulance on Highway 16 rolled into a ditch about 10 kilometres east of Neepawa on Tuesday around 6:45 a.m. No patient was on board. The two paramedics in the ambulance were wearing their seatbelts and weren't hurt.

RCMP continue to investigate but MGEU officials report one of the paramedics had fallen asleep at the wheel.

The Swan River-based paramedics had transferred a patient to Winnipeg and were on their way back when they crashed.

Chacun said they had worked a 12-hour shift in their station on Saturday, and were then on standby for 12 hours overnight. They then worked another 12-hour shift at the station on Sunday, followed by another 24 hours on standby.

During standby on Monday, their pagers went off several times, Chacun said, and they were back on-shift by 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.

They were then sent on the transfer and left Swan River at 10 p.m. They're not allowed to sleep on-shift so they would have been up all night and left Winnipeg around 5 a.m., exhausted.

"Basically, since Saturday morning they've had their pager on and either been working or on standby, prepared to go in, and being woken up by the pager," Chacun said.

It's a scenario that's common in rural areas, Chacun said, and there are people who have worked 96 to 100 straight hours either on-shift or on standby.

He's heard many stories from the weary.

One paramedic once told him she'd slept for only eight hours within a span of 60 hours. Another worked 43 of 48 hours and an employer reprimanded her for wanting to take time off for sleep.

Another paramedic reported driving and hallucinating there were people on the road because he was so tired.

Chacun, a Virden-based paramedic, said the longest he's gone without sleep is 25 hours. He once crashed an ambulance due to fatigue.

He said the province needs to supply more money to RHAs to hire more paramedics so there can be more regular shifts and less standby.

Currently, there's no legislation to restrict the hours paramedics work, Chacun said. The union wants legislation that would cap the length of a shift at 16 hours to be followed by eight hours of uninterrupted rest.

The union has made the issue a priority, Chacun said, and pressed it hard with the province and RHAs since spring of 2010.

Gerry Delorme, executive director of health emergency management for Manitoba Health, said the department is currently investigating the crash. It's also working on the problem of paramedic fatigue.

"Fatigue is definitely a concern for us in emergency medical services," Delorme said.

The department is reviewing the emergency medical services system, he said, and working with the MGEU as it does so. The EMS review is expected to be complete this fall.


-- Brandon Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2012 A4

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