The week of June 19-25 has been designated as National Safety Stand Down week by a joint initiative by several national fire safety commissions and councils. Responder agencies are encouraged to focus on training and education related to a variety of hazardous conditions which are most frequently encountered as part of the high-hazard job responsibilities of fire departments. To get started with the Comp Alliance’s week-long safety tips to focus on training and education for your fire fighters, let’s first review the areas where we see the most workplace injuries occurring for these specialty personnel.
Injuries to fire department staff can originate from several sources and conditions. The causes of fire personnel injuries can vary significantly but the process to control most of these workplace injuries is similar. You must maintain the wherewithal to observe the conditions around you. Develop situational awareness of your environment.
Slip, trip and fall incidents contribute to the most frequent workplace injuries. This is true for fire departments as it is for just about any municipal department today. Injuries from slips, trips and falls can be minor or severe, they can include trips over a crack in the walking surface, a fall down a staircase, or a fall inside a burning structure. Firefighter slip, trip and fall injuries occur most frequently at the fire house, as they spend most of their time at this location. Inspect your facilities for the following hazards:
- Uneven walking surfaces
- Raised cracks greater than a half-inch in the garage areas
- Frayed carpets
- Missing stair handrails
- Poor lighting
- Floor obstructions
At the accident scene, however chaotic it appears, avoid slips, trips and falls by maintaining order and accountability and keep the site clear of unnecessary obstructions. Add lighting to improve visibility, arrange hoses so they can be seen and avoided, and make firefighters aware of hazardous icy patches and clear them when possible.
Physical exertion-related injuries are also frequent among firefighters and generally occur during emergency response or training exercises. These can originate from various causes such as introducing sudden rigorous activities, response to unplanned events occurring in unfamiliar settings, engaging in forcible entries, operating charged hose lines, and others. Injuries include back issues from lifting, heart conditions from over-exertion or over-excitement, knee pain due to donning heavy turn-out gear, hand and arm injuries from overuse of heavy tools and hoses, and knee and back pain from assisting injured civilians. Prevention of such injuries includes frequent and controlled training programs, maintaining some semblance of physical fitness, identifying stressors to employees, use of co-workers to assist when needed, use and training with proper tools, and augment firefighters at the incident scene.
Perhaps the most severe injuries sustained by firefighters are burn and inhalation injuries. Responding to a fire emergency can introduce fire personnel to the inhalation of toxic smoke. Smoke inhalation causes acute life-threatening injuries and results in long-term lung and neurological damage. Burn and inhalation injuries can be caused by entering a fire scene without proper PPE, failure of air packs, injuries sustained within the fire scene without timely rescue, or a downed firefighter at the scene. Incident Command Leaders must maintain focus and awareness at all fire scenes and develop accountability systems for all personnel on-site.
Additional conditions facing firefighters which are likely to lead to injuries include mental and emotional stress, vehicle accidents, responding to emergency calls from the public, and dealing with hostile/aggressive crowds. Mental and emotional stress contributes to physical and mental fatigue and increases potential for injury. Monitor your fire department personnel for signs of mental or emotional stress and utilize your municipal Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) when assistance is needed. Enforce safe vehicle operation policies and standards. Utilize local law enforcement when necessary to avoid crowd interference with firefighting operations.
One common thread significant to the prevention of injuries reviewed above is the achievement of situational awareness, both in department leaders and firefighters. Injuries occur from a multitude of sources, but the importance of every person to maintain situational awareness will go a long way to reducing hazards and their associated injuries.