Fitness and reducing firefighter injuries

Safety officers need to rely on fitness and ergonomics to reduce common injuries

"Safety" and "wellness" are the hot buzz words across all public safety disciplines, and for good reason. With injury rates continuing to rise, wellness continuing to decrease and career longevity not lasting through to retirement, there is a problem.

As a consultant and trainer, I step into all types of departments and agencies. I get to look at each organization's leadership, communications, best practices, injury data, system design, and equipment.

Over the years, the terms "safety" and "wellness" have become too vague for our needs. We need to reduce soft-tissue traumas and injury, as it is the single-most expensive financial outlay for a department and the most debilitating for a responder.

A defining moment
Ask a group of emergency responders what wellness is and you will get varied and often contradicting answers. What is safety? Is it safety scene safety, near miss tracking and safety gear?

In EMS, each department has at least one to two people whose full-time job is devoted to clinical excellence. Each department has a whole staff devoted to billing and separate divisions dedicated to everything from fleet to logistics.

These clearly delineated departments do their jobs very well. But how many personnel are devoted 100% to soft-tissue injury reduction and ergonomics, also known as patient-handling excellence?

I have worked with departments that have over 65 percent of their workers' compensation claims from soft-tissue injury. When we calculate the overtime, staffing shortages, morale and new hire expenses we often see that these departments are spending almost 45 percent of their budgets on something that should not be a problem. 

As public-safety professionals, we must admit that there is a problem; happily, this problem has an easy answer. As technology continues to improve in leaps and bounds, our ability to safely transport and move patients will get more effective.

I know of three different companies that will bring to market this year some patient-handling products that will rock the fire and EMS world, and I can't wait to see their impact.

The ultimate tool
As our reliance on tools and technology increases, our physical ability decreases. Your body is the ultimate tool and my frequent rebuttal at conferences to snarky questions about patient handling is, "Are you using the tool or is it using you?"

It doesn't matter how advanced tools become. Without a physical training that includes balance of strength, mobility and flexibility, your chance of getting hurt moving patients is still high.

Does your department have an officer whose job it is to observe ergonomics on the street? Does your organization retrain on proper lifting and equipment handling every year? Do you have training modules on soft-tissue injury-reduction techniques, which is not DVD-based but hands-on learning?

Sadly we already know the answer to these questions, and it is why injury rates are and will remain so high.

When an individual or individuals who are already in training and supervisory roles are trained to become pre-hospital ergonomic specialists, we will see organizational and behavioral change. And when their job specifically requires them to observe, coach, teach and reinforce safe and efficient patient handling, we will see organizational and behavioral change.

It's this kind of change that facilitates the reduction in soft-tissue injuries, which can be accurately measured.

Call them safety officers. We have seen organizations promote individuals from within that have always pushed their peers to be fit and healthy.

Provide them with the additional training and knowledge. Then, watch how a safety officer who has a specific focus on reducing one of the costliest problems in public safety can turn your department around, empower it, and field a healthy and fit group of responders.

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