Ambulance accident on Highway 16 raises flags


By: Ken Waddell/files from MGEU press release

Early in the morning of Aug. 28, 2012, an ambulance from the Prairie Mountain Regional Health Authority was involved in a single-vehicle motor vehicle accident just south of Neepawa.

The ambulance slid off the road and into the ditch. Paramedics had been returning to their home community of Swan River after doing an all-night inter-facility transfer.


The paramedic had fallen asleep while driving, after several days and nights working with little sleep.The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) has been raising the alarm about paramedic fatigue for several years now. The union feels this is an unfortunate example of what can happen when paramedics are being asked to work long hours with very little or no sleep.

“We are extremely thankful that the paramedics were not injured as a result of this accident and also that the ambulance was not transporting a patient,” said MGEU president Lois Wales. “This incident should set alarms ringing for officials at Manitoba Health and at regional health authorities across Manitoba, about what we’re putting our medics through and what changes need to be made.”

Wayne Chacun, a paramedic at Virden, Man. and the component director for paramedics on the MGEU board said, “We have been trying to raise the flag on this issue of driver fatigue. The excessive amount of stand-by and paramedics not getting enough uninterrupted sleep is the problem. We need more paramedics in rural Manitoba. There’s an increasing number of rural calls.”Manitoba paramedics are often asked to work upwards of 24 hours or more with limited sleep, are required to travel at high speeds on Manitoba highways, and many do not have the option of resting between shifts if they are required to do “on-call” or stand-by shifts.

“In some regional health authorities, a standard of approximately 16 hours is set beyond which paramedics are told to stop working, and we think standards like that are appropriate when you consider the health and welfare of patients, paramedics, and the motoring public,” Wales said. “That standard is not being met in the vast majority of regional health authorities across the province and that’s one of the areas that needs change.”Chacun stated, “Truckers can only drive legally for 13 hours, but there’s no limit for paramedics.”

The paramedics involved in the accident worked Saturday and Sunday according to Chacun and were on standby at night. They didn’t get enough sleep and then went on duty Monday which involved the return trip to and from Winnipeg.

The long hours worked by paramedics often come about as a result of working mandatory on-call or stand-by shifts in addition to regularly scheduled shift work. The MGEU has called for the elimination of stand-by and on-call shifts in favour of full-time, set schedules and hours for paramedics.

Chacun added, “There’s been nothing done when we have asked for changes and there’s no way things can change until there’s more paramedics added. The province says they want to change but it hasn’t happened.”

The Manitoba government recently launched a comprehensive review of emergency medical services in Manitoba. The review, it is hoped, will be the catalyst for government to begin making meaningful changes to EMS that will result in safer work environments, and better health care outcomes for patients regardless of where they live.

Vice-president Pat Cockburn with the Prairie Mountain RHA said that in smaller centres “It is hard to recruit and retain paramedics”. She quoted an example from the Glenboro area where there are no full-time staff for ambulance work, only casual staff.

Cockburn said, “It’s not so much about money as it is about finding staff.”In a larger centre like Swan River which is the base for the ambulance involved in the accident, Cockburn said, “It’s a fully staffed station. The EMTs work four days on and four days off but if they did a night shift, they may be on-call for the day following. They may or may not get called out.”Questioned that there are restrictions on how long truckers can legally work but not ambulance staff, Cockbun said, “It’s been difficult to find a standard for rural settings but we continue to work on it.”