Pipeline paramedics: ensuring healthy workers for healthy projects

It is important to ensure the safety of workers on any worksite, whether in a remote location or in an urban area. Having paramedics onsite means that workers can be treated immediately, increasing the recovery rate of the employee and worksite productivity. Aspen Medical’s Robert Ball and LifeAid’s Alan Close provide holistic medical service to pipeline workers in all kinds of Australian environments.

The whole job site, the whole person

LifeAid has 20 years experience in the pipeline field. Mr Close says that paramedics on such sites are more than practitioners of first aid, they are responsible for the health and wellbeing of every person on a site. This includes treating the emergency injuries, but also common colds and other day-to-day illnesses, which can have an affect on the work output of staff.

“Workers don’t just go out there for months on end and not get sick. You can have a bright, cheery, 17-year-old worker, who is physically fit, right through to older people who’ve been working in the industry for 30 or 40 years. These people can have all sorts of long-term health problems and you have to look after those things too,” Mr Close says.

Mr Close says the job is challenging but also rewarding, as there is much interaction with all people on a job site.

“You are responsible for the welfare of everybody on a site. One day you can be talking to the managing director or the site manager, and the next to an excavator operator. You have to relate to and manage all workers equally and fairly.”

According to Mr Close, the most common injuries paramedics treat are soft tissue injuries, small cuts, abrasions and chafing.

Mr Ball agrees, “Most common on any industrial site are injuries like sprains and strains, some back injuries and occasionally crush injuries.”

The tyranny of distance

Quick response times are advantageous for milder ailments and are critical for emergency situations.

“If a patient has to wait hours for a helicopter to fly in, or has to be driven a long distance on remote roads to receive treatment, the longer the initial assessment is delayed, the longer it will take for the person to be managed properly,” says Mr Close.

Addressing the response time issue from another angle, Mr Ball says his company’s main project at present is the Western Australia Resources Aero Medical Evacuation Service. This comprises a fully medically equipped jet which includes a doctor and a paramedic and two flight crew, which is available at short notice,

24 hours a day, seven days a week to oil and gas industry participants on the North West Shelf.

Mr Ball says often the remoteness of onshore locations can be underestimated.

“There are some similarities between offshore and onshore. Onshore you predominantly think that you’re always close to a medical facility whereas offshore, you have to worry about using helicopters or other means to get people to-and-from the site.

“It’s actually the same for some of the onshore locations, especially on the North West Shelf and in North Queensland at some of the remote gas sites where coal seam gas is being extracted,” Mr Ball says.

Living onsite

Due to the remote nature of many Australian pipeline projects, paramedics most commonly live onsite to ensure reliable access to medical help. They become an integral part of the pipeline construction industry, and average 8-10 hour shifts each day.

Mr Ball says “The paramedics live and work in the same conditions as the people they are looking after. Likewise while the shifts are operational they have to be at the site looking after staff. They are working exactly the same shifts, or a little bit earlier and a little later to cover the start and the end of the shift.”

In these conditions Mr Close says LifeAid follows its own fatigue management procedures. He says that if the operational timeframes are too strenuous on the paramedics they will set their own roster, to ensure the health and safety of themselves as well as the people they are looking after.

The number of paramedics at a site is largely dependent on the scope of the project. LifeAid’s operations can range from a single paramedic to a clinic.

“We typically have one on each site, and a site can be from 100 up to a thousand workers. If a site has over about 500 workers we will provide 24 hour coverage.

“We worked on the Dampier to Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline, which had five campsites along its route and we had a paramedic at every one,” Mr Close says.

Qualifications

A major advantage of using paramedic staff from a company like Aspen Medical or LifeAid is the guarantee of highly certified and experienced medical practitioners. The paramedic contractors do the work in recruiting the best staff so that pipeline companies can be assured that they receive the best care for their employees.

Mr Close says that his paramedics must have at least five years experience in the field, and many have previously worked in fields such as the Australian Defence Force.

Mr Ball says “At Aspen Medical we tend to recruit intensive care paramedics, predominantly from the east coast of Australia. What they bring with them is significant skills and training, and that is what we find best to meet the needs of our customers.”

Industry awareness

Health professionals can only do so much if safety procedures are not in place. Both Mr Ball and Mr Close believe that companies within the oil and gas sector treat employee safety as a serious issue.

Mr Ball says “Over the last five years we’ve seen a real increase in awareness by all companies. Under APIA’s leadership, a lot of companies, who are natural competitors, have become focussed on the best outcomes for their staff and contractors.”

Similarly, Mr Close says “Oil and gas sectors are pretty switched on to safety.”

Mr Close suggests that an area industry could improve on is awareness of medical standards. He suggests that if companies were armed with a bit more knowledge to differentiate between first aid and medicine on an advanced level, they would see the benefits of first class paramedical service.

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