AMBULANCE staff in Omagh are said to be working up to ten hours at a time without proper meal or other breaks.
Paramedics are warning that the situation – which they claim has been ongoing for over a year – is putting the health and safety of patients and workers at increasing risk.
The problem is being blamed on the failure of management to introduce more emergency vehicles and the large distances which those based in Omagh have to travel to Altnagelvin in Derry or the South West Hospital in Enniskillen.
West Tyrone Sinn Feín Assembly member, Barry McElduff, is to raise the matter with the Health Minister, Edwin Poots. Mr McElduff said breaks should be a “sacrosanct right” for the staff.
“These people are already working under what can be very traumatic and challenging circumstances. But the failure to ensure that they are able to avail of their statutory breaks is leaving them over-worked, tired and is putting the lives of their patients at risk,” he said.
“I have been contacted by several of those based in Omagh who have told me how they are feeling exhausted and tired due to the failure of management not to deal with the situation,” added Mr McElduff (left).
“What is happening is that staff are often having to act on emergency calls which come in during their breaks and it is getting to the situation where people have no break for up to ten hours into their shift.
“Management haven’t acted on the evidence of staff who don’t receive their breaks and are constantly dealing with calls and travelling between Omagh, Enniskillen and Derry. It is crucial that the welfare of staff in this regard is urgently addressed because these long periods without a break are now a regular occurrence.”
Mr McElduff went on to say that more vehicles are required on the ground to ease the pressure on staff, as well as the full use of an intermediate care vehicle to transfer patients who did not require paramedic intervention and also accommodate GP calls.
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said the issue of ensuring allocated meal breaks has always been a challenge because of the unpredictable nature of demand.
“This has been made even more challenging in recent years by the year on year increase in demand on the service as we now receive approximately 140,000 calls for emergency assistance and approximately 30,000 GP Urgent requests,” said a spokesperson.
“The current situation is that frontline staff, on 12 hour shifts, are allocated two 30 minute meal breaks throughout the day, for which they are paid. Colleagues in Control and other areas of the service receive unpaid meal breaks and are not disturbed.
“Should frontline staff be disturbed during the meal break, in order to respond to a call, they will receive further payment in respect of their ‘spoilt meal’ and efforts are made to facilitate the completion of their original break.
“During 12 hour day shifts, staff are allocated meal breaks from approximately 11.30am (for their first meal break) and from 4.30pm (for their second meal break). Should a crew be operational for six hours without a meal break, they will receive a protected and undisturbed meal break, unless when required to respond to a life threatening Category A call.”