Companies operating in foreign climes may be putting the lives of their employees at risk by overlooking basic health protocols, warned Tangiers International’s medical director.
Dr John Quinn, an emergency and disaster medicine specialist who heads Tangiers’ site assessment service, has seen numerous recent cases where poor medical planning had resulted in almost catastrophic outcomes for workers.
These included an employee being misdiagnosed with indigestion despite actually suffering heart problems and the injuries of a trauma victim being exacerbated by a lack of up-to-date first-aid equipment and someone trained to use it.
He said: “For many projects, medicine is dead last on any planning that takes place.
“Companies will celebrate because they’ve won a contract but at no point in the process do they think ‘What are the health needs of local nationals versus expat workers? What is our plan if we need to reach the nearest hospital at short notice? What are the quantifiable risks of where we’re going?’
“Even companies which have been active in the remote medical domain for decades often completely drop the ball when thinking about the difficulties a hostile environment could bring.
“It’s difficult to win contracts and be commercially competitive and also to ensure medical protocols are up to scratch – but it’s vitally important that they are.”
Dr Quinn recounted a recent case in South Africa in which a foreign worker for an oil and gas company complained of chest pains while on site – the start of a cardiac incident which he fortunately survived – only to be told it was probably indigestion and that it would be impossible to return to base at that time anyway.
“They realised during that crisis that their response had been wholly inadequate,” said Dr Quinn. “They had a lot of people that were deploying, often in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, who liked to smoke and drink, among other behavioural risk factors.
“They were not really keyed into the risk factors involved here, so as soon as something like that happens, they’re instantly on the back foot.”
During another incident, this time in South America, staff retrieved a first-aid kit in order to treat an employee who had suffered a trauma wound. It was only upon opening the kit, they discovered that not only were crucial items out of date but that no one was trained to use them.
Tangiers International offers companies a range of site assessment services designed to ensure every health risk is identified and mitigated and that staff members understand the life-saving protocols which needs to be followed during a medical emergency.
These services span everything from producing detailed reports on the particular risks a country or region might bring to help setting up small on-site clinics with full-time medical staff who have expertise in hostile environments.
Dr Quinn explained that even relatively minor failings in the ways companies deal with unexpected medical incidents could have grave consequences – and that dealing with the fallout would invariably be a much greater task than putting in place simple and well-tested protocols beforehand.
“The risk to workers can be quite severe,” he added. “It can often take a death before companies stop and think ‘What have we been doing wrong this whole time?’”