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March 14, 2019
Ergonomics major concern for firefighters, EMTs, NIOSH says

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and firefighters experience musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) at five times the rate of most workers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said in a summary of research priorities for the public safety sector.

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EMTs and paramedics have rate of 184 work-related MSDs per 10,000 full-time workers. The overall rate for workers is 34. Firefighters reported an MSD rate of 179 per 10,000 full-time workers.

Public safety research agenda

NIOSH recently released its National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) for the public safety sector. There are agendas for 10 industry sectors and seven cross-sector agendas for occupational safety and health issues affecting multiple industry sectors. Priorities for the public safety sector (corrections, emergency medical services, fire services, law enforcement, and wildland fire services) originally were including in the services sector. However, stakeholders concluded there were several safety and health issues unique to public safety.

The eight objectives of the public safety sector agenda are:

  • Reduce cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases;
  • Reduce infectious disease transmission;
  • Reduce musculoskeletal disorders;
  • Reduce motor vehicle injuries;
  • Reduce workplace violence;
  • Promote healthy work design and well-being;
  • Improve surveillance; and
  • Improve resilience/preparedness.

Higher toll of MSDs

Public safety workers not only experience MSDs at a higher rate than most workers but also experience more days away from work as a result. Overall, MSDs result in 13 median days away from work. In public safety, the number of days away often are higher:

  • 15 for firefighters,
  • 24 for correctional officer, and
  • 27 for police and sheriff patrol officers.

The NORA Public Safety Council wants to see research into:

  • Evaluating the effectiveness of various interventions in reducing MSDs;
  • Evaluating the impact of occupational task movement assessment and training in eliminating movements that can contribute to MSDs;
  • Identifying stressors that lead to MSDs in public safety work;
  • Developing new strategies to prevent MSD injuries, especially ankle/foot, back, knee, and shoulder injuries; and
  • Evaluating new technologies to reduce the incidence of MSDs.

Heart attacks

Although nonoccupational factors play a role in cardiovascular diseases, the stress of public safety occupations may be a risk factor for heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Stress and trauma that other workers may briefly or occasionally experience may occur on nearly every shift for a public safety worker.

The consequences can be deadly. Cardiovascular disease causes more than half (51%) of firefighter on-the-job fatalities.

Firefighters also may be exposed to contaminants and particulates that put them at a higher risk for certain cancers.

Motor vehicle crashes, workplace violence

EMTs, firefighters, and police officers often are expected to respond quickly to public safety incidents. High rates of speed can result in motor vehicle crashes and failure to use seatbelts or other restraints can raise the severity of injuries in a crash. Public safety workers also may be struck by other vehicles while responding to a roadside incident.

Correctional officers face the risk of assault by inmates. Assaults account for 40 percent of fatal workplace injuries and 38 percent of nonfatal injuries among correctional officers.

The NORA Public Safety Council wants to see research into:

  • Better quantifying assaults and violent encounters for law enforcement officers;
  • Evaluating patient assault and bystander violence for EMTs and firefighters;
  • Identifying the incidence of violent encounters in daily interactions for corrections officers; and
  • Evaluating the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and hazing in all public safety subsectors.

Significance for employers

While public safety services traditionally were performed by public-sector employees, many now are performed by employees of private-sector employers with contracts with state and local governments.

Occupational safety and health research may identify or clearly define workplace risk factors that employers must address. However, research may also identify interventions that can reduce worker injuries and illnesses.

Some interventions in the public safety sector may also be applicable. For instance, multiple industries are affected by motor vehicle crashes and workplace violence.

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