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Ornge's lack of training endangered pilots' safety, federal report says

The government launched an investigation into Ornge last May, after a deadly helicopter crash on the James Bay coast of Northern Ontario.

Paul Lantz

Ontario's air-ambulance service endangered the health and safety of pilots by failing to educate them on the hazards of operating helicopters in remote locations or adequately train supervisors.

In the first official report since a deadly helicopter crash on the James Bay coast of Northern Ontario last May, the federal government says a number of activities at the Ornge air-ambulance service constitute "a danger to an employee at work."

The report, prepared by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, cites six areas where Ornge broke federal labour laws, including failing to adequately educate pilots on the hazards associated with operating helicopters in northern Ontario, especially when flying for nighttime emergencies. A copy of the report dated Nov. 14 was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

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The federal government launched an investigation into Ornge after the fatal accident on May 31 involving a Sikorsky S-76A helicopter, which hit the ground shortly after takeoff from the Moosonee airport south of James Bay. No patients were on board, but all four crew members perished in Canada's first fatalities involving a helicopter air ambulance. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is also conducting an investigation.

Operational problems have dogged Ornge since it became embroiled in controversy two years ago over private, for-profit ventures created by former chief executive officer Chris Mazza.

The Ontario government created Ornge as a not-for-profit entity in 2006 to co-ordinate all aspects of the province's air-ambulance service. Ornge then set up for-profit entities and got into the aviation business by purchasing and operating its own fleet of airplanes and helicopters.

Progressive Conservative MPP Frank Klees said the health and safety problems highlighted in the federal report reveal that Ornge should get out of the aviation business and hand responsibility to a private-sector company with expertise in that area.

"We cannot continue to perpetuate this scheme dreamed up by Chris Mazza," Mr. Klees said.

Ornge has until Dec. 31 to bring its practices in compliance with the Canada Labour Code. Ornge chief executive officer Andrew McCallum said in a statement on Monday that it is addressing the health and safety concerns raised by Ottawa.

The air-ambulance provider says it has made several changes to enhance the health and safety of its crews, including installing solar-powered lighting to illuminate helipads at rural locations across Ontario and revising its standard operating procedures for night operations.

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"Ornge is committed to taking all necessary steps to ensure the safety of our staff, both on the ground and in the air," Dr. McCallum said.

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More


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