Hospital hit by power failure

OPERATING theatres and wards in a major Essex hospital were left without electricity after an emergency generator failed during a power cut, the EADT has learned.

By Roddy Ashworth

OPERATING theatres and wards in a major Essex hospital were left without electricity after an emergency generator failed during a power cut, the EADT has learned.

The outage - which lasted about 45 minutes - meant that areas of Colchester General Hospital were left with staff not knowing when power would be restored.

The incident happened at around 9am on March 4 this year and came to light as part of an investigation carried out by the EADT into “Serious Untoward Incidents” (SUIs) reported by Essex Rivers Healthcare NHS Trust.


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Out of the hundreds of thousands of procedures and millions of interactions with patients between January and October this year, 12 incidents qualified as SUIs and were reported to the Strategic Health Authority, the Department of Health and the trust's board.

These included the death of a mother and baby during childbirth in February, an allegation of assault made by a patient against a member of staff in May and the retention of a swab inside a woman during a caesarean section in July.

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In October it was reported that two cystoscopes - instruments used to examine the bladder and urethra - might have been used without being sterilised, and also that a doctor at the hospital was working without having been registered at the General Medical Council.

Yesterday David Hewitt - the trust's director of facilities - said that after March's power failure a complete review into the way generators worked was carried out and changes to emergency procedures were made, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

He stressed that no patient had suffered medically because of the incident.

“If the national grid supply fails we have three diesel generators on the site to kick in and ensure an uninterruptible power supply. These are tested every month,” he explained.

“In this instance, they fired up, but the panel between one of the generators and the supply failed.

“The engineer was called and because there were two generators we started to switch the power we had to the main services.

“The electricity company were aware and because we were a hospital they switched the power back to us. It was off for about 45 minutes.”

The outage affected plant rooms controlling heating, the telephone and system and about 60% of the operating theatres.

Fortunately it was a Sunday and no elective surgery was taking place, but had an accident occurred emergency surgery could have been underway during the power cut.

Mr Hewitt said: “As a result of this incident, the way the generators are linked has been changed so that if one fails the other two automatically divert power to the central areas.

“It was expensive, but it was tested by an independent firm of electricians and although we can never say a power outage will never happen again, this particular situation would not now arise.”

Yesterday a spokesman for Essex Rivers Healthcare NHS Trust said: “Clearly, incidents such as the power loss we take extremely seriously.

“We encourage and foster a no-blame culture so staff report this type of event and we can look into it and, where appropriate, put in place measures to minimise the risk to patients in the future.

“One SUI is one too many, but in the context of the amount of work the trust does 12 is a low number.

“Last year we had 97,000 A&E patients, performed almost 27,000 operations and 7.5 million lab tests.

“However, we are working towards lowering the number of SUIs and eventually eradicating them altogether.”

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