Medics who put health and safety before saving lives: The disturbing trend that led a 999 crew to refuse to carry a dying teenager
When 14-year-old Shannon Powell collapsed on a cross country race course in January, a first aider promptly called an ambulance.
The North London schoolgirl had suffered a violent fit and had fallen on a muddy track. Because the paramedics had problems gaining access to the track, it took nearly an hour for them to finally reach her.
When they did, it was to announce they couldn’t carry the teenager off the muddy hill ‘because it’s health and safety and we might fall over’.
The coroner said Shannon Powell probably would have lived had there not been a “significant delay” in taking her to hospital because of “health and safety” concerns
Furthermore, paramedic Cassandra Lynnsaid she didn’t want to pick up the dying teenager because she might hurt her back, an inquest into Shannon’s death heard earlier this month.
Instead bystanders carried Shannon to the ambulance — she then suffered a second seizure and died.
Thecoroner, Andrew Walker, said Shannon probably would have lived had there not been a ‘significant delay’ in taking her to hospital because of ‘health and safety’ concerns.
Anisolated example Tragically, no — for ‘health and safety’, or at leastsome twisted interpretation of the phrase, is to blame for a litany of tragedies and daily cruelty inflicted on the vulnerable.
Even the Government’s own health-and-safety watchdog fears the term is being misused, leading to needless suffering.
Take the story of Peter Moylan. The 85-year old former joiner had gone to Aintree University Hospital for treatment for bladder cancer as an out-patient in December 2008 when he fell badly.
He’d walked into a lift close to the hospital reception and the door shut suddenly, knocking him to the floor with such force he suffered a broken hip.
It is utterly depressing to hear of health professionals putting bureaucratic protocols before the clearly urgent needs of people in deep distress
But rather than help Mr Moylan to casualty, the nurses sent for an ambulance — even though he was already in the hospital.
This was for health-and-safety reasons, they told Mr Moylan’s family — the nurses (or qualified medics, as you and I would regard them) were concerned they might injure Mr Moylan by moving him.
And so he was left lying in agony on the cold floor with only a coat to cover him until the ambulance arrived — 25 minutes later. ‘
‘The A&E unit was just round the corner,’ said the couple’s son Peter Jnr, 62.
‘It was health and safety gone mad. A little common sense would have gone a long way. We pleaded with the staff, but we were told they had to go through normal channels and that he had to wait.’
Tragically, Mr Moylan never regained mobility after the fall and a few months later he died.
It is utterly depressing to hear of health professionals putting bureaucratic protocols before the clearly urgent needs of people in deep distress.
But often the real fault lies deep in the health service management culture, which has become obsessed with reducing all possible risk — despite the fact that genuinely helping people often involves some element of risk-taking.
As Mike Travis, a nurse who has worked for 30 years as a health-and-safety union representative for the Royal College of Nursing, points out: ‘Employers often do not understand that proper health and safety is about providing education and training that enables staff to make decisions for themselves in risky situations.
“Instead, employers tend to impose blanket bans on staff doing this or that, with the aim of saving the hospital from being sued by patients.’
Tellingly, a recent survey of 1,000 members of the College of Paramedics showed three quarters had been unable to intervene in a situation because of health-and-safety regulations introduced by managers.
This is how we end up with notorious cases such as that of Brian Bendle, who in 2009 was left lying in 6in of water with a broken back while paramedics refused to help him because of health-and-safety rules.
They said they were trained only for land emergencies and could not help Mr Bendle, 45, who’d been hit by a jet-ski at Middlemoor Water Park in Woolavington, Somerset.
Instead, bystanders had to slide a spinal board under him themselves and carry him to ambulance staff just 6ft away.
But it is far from just a problem for hospitals or at emergencies: ‘health and safety’ is also used as a flag of convenience for carers who treat patients inhumanely in their own homes.
So found an inquiry last month by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the conduct of care staff who visit people in their homes to help them.
It heard of one case where a young, able-bodied female carer simply watched as a 76-year-old woman with terminal cancer struggled from her lounge to the kitchen to microwave a meal, after the carer said she could not touch the oven for ‘health-and-safety’ reasons.
The patient’s daughter told the inquiry: ‘It is hard to think of a reason or excuse big enough to adequately cover such a fundamental lack of care from one adult to another at such a basic level as the provision of food.’
In another case, it was revealed how one carer refused to leave food and drink out for an Alzheimer’s patient where she could see it.
Instead, it was stored in a fridge for ‘health-and-safety’ reasons. As a result the patient would inevitably forget the meal was there and spent the day without food.
These ‘small’ acts of cruelty are being enacted, possibly unthinkingly, every day, said the commission’s report.
Some carers may simply use the health-and-safety mantra to justify inaction and even neglect. Others may occur as a result of individual carers misunderstanding the culture of health and safety to mean excluding everything that might appear risky.
Overzealous health-and-safety rules written by anxious local NHS managers often cause such problems, adds Mike Travis.
‘Any idiot can write a health-and-safety policy, the real skill is in implementing it.
‘The crucial thing is that we make policies that work in the real world, and that staff are trained properly to interpret those rules sensibly in emergencies where they have to make difficult decisions.’
He cites the example of nurses being banned from wearing Crocs shoes.
‘This is because of completely baseless myths such as the idea the shoes can harm patients by encouraging a build-up of static electricity in ward areas, or that they put staff at increased risk from dropping a syringe into their foot.
‘But Crocs are great for staff in critical-care departments because they are airy, give support, are comfortable and washable.’
‘They can be a problem in places such as A&E, where staff often have to run rather than walk, but that simply does not justify a blanket ban.
“The trouble is that employers with a blanket-ban mentality find it hard to understand that different rules can apply in different places, times and circumstances.’
Such level-headed advice might have benefited bosses at Wishaw General Hospital in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Patients had to endure cold meals for months after ward staff were banned from using oven gloves.
Executives decided the mitts could spread infection. In August, the hospital was forced into a U-turn when an independent taskforce said they were wrong.
Health-and-safety paranoia also caused embarrassment earlier this year for ambulance bosses in Aberdeenshire. They had to apologise to Susanne McCafferty, a blind woman with cancer, who had to leave her guide dog at home when an ambulance came to take her to a hospital appointment.
Mrs McCafferty, 44, had expected to be able to take her faithful guide-companion Garner to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, but the crew refused to carry Garner, because the dog was meant to have a special harness which could be bolted to the floor.
This left Mrs McCafferty, a former nurse, for six hours at the clinic without the help of her guide dog when she was given the devastating news her cancer had spread.
The Scottish Ambulance Service has since agreed she should not have been told to leave Garner at home.
Even the government’s Health and Safety Executive suggests that, when it comes to healthcare, it’s ‘elf & safety’ gone mad.
As chairman Judith Hackitt told the Mail: ‘Real health and safety has helped make Britain one of the safest places in the world to work.
“But we have seen a disturbing trend for individuals and organisations to reach for “health and safety” as a convenient excuse when a decision proves to be controversial, unpopular or just plain wrong.
‘It is all the more saddening and worrying if this happens in tragic cases where people have suffered or died needlessly.
“We want health and safety focused on managing real risks in the workplace, not used as a dubious last line of defence for bad decision making.’
Meanwhile, Peter Moylan’s family have reached a private settlement with Aintree University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which has also apologised.
In explanation, the trust said: ‘Mr Moylan and his wife were looked after by a nurse while ambulance staff, who are trained to move patients safely and without exacerbating any injuries, came to attend to Mr Moylan.’
But surely the whole point of NHS health and safety is that it should actually protect patients’ health and keep them safe.