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Injured forestry workers face emergency response delays in rural B.C.: ombudsman

Last Updated Feb 1, 2017 at 5:20 pm PDT

VICTORIA – Esko Saarinen says he was freezing, shaking, bleeding and in shock.

The forestry worker’s left leg was crushed in a tree-felling accident on Haida Gwaii off British Columbia’s north coast and he remembers co-workers covering him in blankets, telling him to hang on, help was coming.

Saarinen said it took five hours via two separate boats and a bumpy ride on a mechanic’s truck to get him to the nearest hospital at Queen Charlotte City, which would have taken 20 minutes in a helicopter. He then waited another six hours for an air ambulance flight to a hospital in Vancouver, where doctors amputated his left leg below the knee.

Saarinen’s case was among those highlighted Wednesday by the province’s forest safety ombudsman, who said injured workers wait too long for air ambulances.

The ombudsman’s report — titled “Will It Be There?” — recommended the introduction of legislation to guarantee timely air ambulance responses to emergencies at rural work sites and communities.

“I was cold. I was getting to the situation where I was going to pass out,” Saarinen said in an interview on Wednesday.

He said he still can’t understand why an air ambulance never came to the work site.

“Something has to change,” said Saarinen. “We were falling trees in a remote location and they don’t come and rescue me, but if you go out of bounds on a ski hill they go and rescue them right away.”

Ombudsman Roger Harris said Alaska and Washington have policies that ensure emergency officials can get the injured to a trauma centre within an hour.

“If you break your leg in downtown Vancouver or you break your leg in Iskut, B.C. … the distance to hospital, one’s measured in minutes and the other’s measured in hours,” said Harris in an interview.

The former Liberal member of the legislature said the slow response to Saarinen’s logging accident was the catalyst for his report.

“Once a review of it was done, the agencies involved said nothing was wrong here,” he said. “This is how it works. Intuitively, we all go, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this.”

B.C. Emergency Health Services said it was reviewing Harris’s report.

“No matter the location, air ambulances and paramedics are dispatched according to the care needs of each patient, and the level of urgency required,” said executive vice-president Linda Lupini in a statement. “The forest industry presents inherent risks and in many cases it may not be safe, or practical, to send BCEHS paramedics and air ambulance pilots into these areas.”

The ombudsman’s office was established in 2006 to enhance safety in the forestry sector and investigate issues arising from policies, practices, and procedures within the industry.