Vital air to babies cut twice - whistleblower

Last updated 05:00 09/06/2014

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A Waikato District Health Board whistleblower claims 20 babies' lives were put at risk after maintenance staff twice turned off their vital breathing gas.

The staff member - who emailed the Waikato Times under the pseudonym "Concerned Citizen" - said chaos ensued as alarms to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) incubators rang.

The Waikato DHB denies lives were in danger but admits that the shutdown work to enable a new medical gas pipe supply did not go as planned.

The whistleblower wrote that the incubators supplied a vital breathing gas called "medical air".

The medical air is the babies' lifeline and cutting it off could kill them, the whistleblower wrote.

"When the medical air was shut down for the first time - for the work to start - immediately all the alarms at the incubators for the babies went into alarm. Chaos ensued. The medical air was switched back on within a short amount of time."

However, after investigation and advice from the supervisor, the whistleblower states that the air was again turned off, again causing air to be lost to the babies.

"There was total confusion."

The whistleblower wrote that the maintenance staff were complaining that none of the drawings for the gas system made sense or were up to date.

The whistleblower listed key areas of concern: There was no standard operating procedure or training for the isolation. The person doing the work had worked at the hospital only four weeks.

There had not been enough preparation time. Management had ignored concerns about wrong drawings of the equipment for the past three years.

The engineering department is overworked and underpaid as services had been outsourced to contractors who charged six times the price of a normal staff member.

Waikato DHB spokeswoman Mary Anne Gill said its property and infrastructure team undertook the shutdown work on Thursday to enable a new medical gas pipe supply to the newly refurbished Ward E5 Waikids Medical Ward, on the fifth floor of the Elizabeth Rothwell Building.

"The work was planned well in advance and a risk mitigation plan put in place. Property and infrastructure worked closely with NICU staff and at any time, under their instructions, work could be stopped and in fact was.

When we felt this isolation was not going as planned, we reverted back to the original state and suspended the shutdown. At no time were any infants' lives put at risk."

Gill said the work was completed on Friday. "Waikato DHB can confirm we received an incident complaint form from a staff member on Friday which we will investigate."

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