The increasing flow of workers to resource-based industrial work camps and the potential challenges they face receiving health services in the Northern Health region were discussed Wednesday at the health authority's monthly board meeting.
But the efforts of Northern Health to plan for population changes to address the medical needs of camp employees and enhance delivery of health services are being hampered by a lack of a coordinated system to gather information about those camps and the thousands of workers who staff them.
Dr. Ronald Chapman, chief medical officer for Northern Health, identified in the study 1,809 industrial camps in the northern half of the province. With the exception of logging camps, the study was unable to determine how many of those industrial camps are now occupied, how many will become active in the near future and how many have been permanently dismantled. The camp total does not include the more transient silviculture and oil exploration camps, most of which operate for two weeks or less.
"There's a huge interest in resource development and a lot of manpower required to work in isolated camps," said Chapman. "Prevalent with resource-based economies are transient workers, but we don't understand that population very well and we don't know who they are.
"We don't know the complexity of their health challenges, where they might access services, and what services we may need to provide in the North for that group, and that's what we need to do."
In their March study, researchers Greg Thibault and Kelly Giesbrecht identified 98 major projects in the northern B.C.'s oil and gas, mining, and forestry sectors, many of which house their employees in work camps. In the northern Interior region, there were 18 major forestry camps working for 10 different licensees operating mostly silviculture. Fifteen major projects were in operation, including five mines, with four more mining operations on the horizon.
Each camp is responsible to apply to Northern Health's environmental health officers for drinking water, sewage and food services permits. Some industries supply their own medical services to camp workers, from nurses and doctors to occupational health and safety workers, and those factors will be taken into account in assessing health needs, said Northern Health CEO Cathy Ulrich.
"We made a commitment to a process of understanding the situation first, and providing sustainable solutions that make sense next," said Ulrich. "The challenge will be measuring the impact and providing recommendations and solutions to support communities in meeting the health needs of this work force."
Northern Health plans to follow up the background paper with more focused studies working with industry contacts and public sector stakeholders such as WorkSafeBC and the Environmental Assessment Office to learn more about the health impacts on workers. The impact on workers of shiftwork, isolation, eating habits and physical activity; the effect of camps in increasing the likelihood of communicable diseases, mental health problems and substance addictions; and safety concerns of workplace accidents and motor vehicle crashes will be studied.
Northern Health wants to determine the need of camp workers for physician visits, primary care, and perinatal care, and how those largely isolated workers will access emergency and trauma care.
"We see people flying in, flying out and we know the itinerant worker situation, but we know very little about it -- how many camps, how many are active and who's in them," said Northern Health chair Charles Jago. "Just putting together that study that identifies the camps that have been approved through the regulation process has been an enormous amount of work.
"It's the beginning of allowing us to do further research and have a better understanding of this population. It's a significant population in northern B.C., a transient population, but are they impacting our services and do we need to gear up to provide more specialty services to the camps? We want to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.".