Preventing Injury in Responders

By Bryan Fass

In preparation for a few months of lectures and consulting work, I've been digging through an enormous amount of research and data. In sifting through all this information, I've found that despite a significant investment in technology by public safety agencies to preserve the safety of their employees, injury rates have not decreased.

The incidence of injury to the knees and lower back, overexertion injuries, and mechanical strain has remained almost constant in our profession. While new devices like cots and stair chairs have reduced the incidence of stretcher-lifting injuries, the primary source of lifting injury is still the patient, not the stretcher. (Remember that we also need to get them from the floor/bed/chair/car to the cot!)

One survey I encountered showed that at any one time, nearly 10 percent of EMTs alone are out of work with an injury. Additionally, 47 percent of public safety employees described a back injury in the past six months, meaning a fair amount of injury remains unreported. The scary part of that little tidbit is that once you have sustained an injury — even a minor one — your chance of re-injury is much higher. Some studies show a nearly 100 percent chance of a more severe injury following a minor injury.

A study from Ohio State University painted a sobering statistic: 8.1 out of 100 EMS responders will suffer an injury compared to 1.3 out of 100 municipal and general labor workers. That is a 62 percent difference! This finding tells us that the EMS and fire industry is just as — or more — strenuous than municipal work, and our injury rates are significantly higher.

With no national standard, there is sporadic and uneven support for programs that establish, test, and maintain adequate fitness levels for EMS and the fire service. While the aforementioned data seems to convey a clear picture, injury rates continue to climb. It is thus up to us as a profession to take the reins and become responsible for our own health and wellness. Sadly, those who have chosen to make public safety their career will have a difficult time making it to retirement age, as most leave on medical disability. I'm here to tell you that there is a way to climb above these horrid statistics and become the fit responders that we need to be.

Responsibility has different connotations to different people; some see it as a necessity, and others see it as a burden. As adults and professionals, there is no reason that we should not follow a few simple steps to avoid becoming yet another statistic.

We have the only profession that allows us to exercise on duty, so why not use that to our advantage? We have stations and apparatuses that are ideal for stretching, exercising, and general fitness activities. I can design a gym for a station for under $150, and when used appropriately, it will lead to reduced injury, fewer sick days, and increased productivity. Instead of lounging around waiting for the next call, use your time to your advantage.
As a whole, we wait for injury or illness to occur and then we take action, very much like our jobs. Make the time to stretch every day, get daily cardiovascular exercise, and have fun doing it. You will not only lose weight, but your energy will increase, your immune function will be stronger, and you will feel better. It's no fun to be sore and achy all day, but only you can take the responsibility to change that.

I have written numerous articles for FireRescue1 and many of them have explored just what I talked about here. I have written a book with a complete fitness and injury prevention program and designed posters to go in your station with all the corresponding 'tricks of the trade.' Only you can take the time and make the effort to change. Physical responsibility is no different than any other responsibility in our profession — it is expected of you. With injury rates so high and career longevity so poor, it’' up to us to become responsible for our own well-being and ultimately the well-being of our patients, families and coworkers.

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