Halifax hospital staff, patients ‘suffering from heat exhaustion,’ says union leader

The temperature in the Victoria General hospital in Halifax is reaching 30 C in some parts of the aging building, leading to heat exhaustion among staff and uncomfortable conditions for patients, says the union representing nurses at the facility.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union is calling for an emergency fix to make conditions more bearable in the building, which doesn’t have air conditioning on every floor.

“Patients who are laying in a hospital bed cannot get away from that heat. They cannot move. It’s not acceptable,” said union president Sandra Mullen.

Environment Canada is forecasting temperatures in the mid to high 20s in Halifax this week, with the humidex on Wednesday expected to hit 35. Heat warnings issued for mainland Nova Scotia late last month advised people to watch for signs of heat stroke and dehydration.

At the Victoria General hospital, there is no air conditioning on the fourth, seventh or ninth floors of the hospital. A cooling unit on the eighth floor, where patients with blood cancers undergo chemotherapy, does not extend to the entire unit.

Mullen says nursing staff in the unit are already experiencing burnout from staffing shortages, and the heat now adds to the stress.

“They’re absolutely frustrated and suffering from heat exhaustion,” she said.

Mullen has heard complaints from all levels of staff in the building. “Not just nurses, all the folks who have to keep that hospital running and have to keep the place clean, the food service workers, everyone who works in that hospital is suffering in these conditions.” 

Solutions being reviewed

On Friday, Nova Scotia Health CEO Karen Oldfield visited the eighth floor of the Victoria General building to meet with staff affected by the hot conditions.

In a written statement to CBC, the health authority described the conditions as “less than ideal.”

The health authority said it has not been cost that’s kept air conditioning out of the building, but concerns about the air quality. People treated with chemo in the building are immunocompromised, and an air conditioning system would have to ensure very high air quality. 

Health Minister Michelle Thompson reiterated this at a press conference on Thursday.

“In aging facilities, it’s not always easy. It’s not as simple as putting an air conditioner in the window,” said Thompson.

The minister said the province and the health authority would have to look into air quality and infection control before installing air conditioning, but did not indicate if this was being done nor provide a timeline for infrastructure changes.

She said there are methods used to keep people cool in the building such as using fans and encouraging people to keep hydrated. 

The health authority is hoping to propose a solution later this week.

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