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Home > Topics > Safety
December 17, 2013
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EMS News in Focus
by Arthur Hsieh

EMS is more dangerous than police work

Control the factors you can — like your physical fitness — because other factors loom

By Arthur Hsieh

On-the-job illness and injury rates continue to be much greater for us (4.5 percent) than for most occupations, including firefighters (1.1 percent) and police officers (3.2 percent). This is despite advances in technology and a greater awareness of the hazards.

The latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report reflects my personal experiences. I know of a few former colleagues who are permanently disabled from the job. But I also know of many more who go to work every day with chronic shoulder, knee or back pain. There are many days where my shoulders are aching from morning to night. I attribute that from years of two-person gurney lifts (and continuous hours in front of a keyboard).

There are a few things we can work on to keep ourselves healthy. 

  • Get healthy, and stay that way. Yes, it takes more energy to make lunch and dinner at home, or go shopping and cook at the station. But you control what you eat. That’s key to weight management — not to mention wallet management (eating out is expensive!).
  • Keep your core muscles in shape. You don’t need to go to the gym; there are simple exercises that EMS1 columnist Bryan Fass has written about before that help to keep your abdominal and lower back muscles strong.
  • Cardiovascular health is also key. Ours is an endurance job.
  • Stretch and remain limber while working. Take a few seconds to make sure your body is ready to lift and move.
  • Most emergencies aren’t. Don’t rush the lifting and moving. The faster you move, the more likely you’ll catch your body off guard — and get hurt.

I know, you have heard most of these tips, but do you pay attention to them? This isn’t for the next person — it’s for you, my friend.

What can we advocate for in our industry?

  • Lower loading decks. Some of these monster trucks we call ambulances really suck at keep our backs and shoulders safe.
  • Stop carrying unnecessarily. That’s equipment and patients. 
  • Implement safe carrying policies. Many hands make light work, as the saying goes. There’s nothing more irritating to see one person muscling the gurney into the ambulance while the other person watches.
  • Change the ambulance configuration. There are moves afoot for that to happen. Bench seats are so 1960s. Replace them with seats that keep us ergonomically safe, and protect us better in a crash.

What are you doing to keep yourself from getting hurt on the job?

About the author

EMS1 Editor in Chief Art Hsieh, MA, NREMT-P currently teaches at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. In the profession since 1982, Art has worked as a line medic and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a published textbook author, has presented at conferences nationwide, and continues to provide patient care at a rural hospital-based ALS system. Contact Art at
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Dana Arbeit Dana Arbeit Wednesday, December 18, 2013 1:12:18 PM Great article Art! I wholeheartedly agree that those on active service should do everything possible to stay healthy. I really like the "many hands make light work" comment. Where I worked, we had access to fire companies for extra help. I often called them in to the incident for that purpose. Most of the time the FFs were happy to help but there were exceptions. What has amazed me from my earliest days in EMS is the lack of innovation in ambulance staffing. Where is it 'cut in stone' that an ambulance crew is only two people? Whenever we had an intern medic, we had to call FFs for 'manpower' less. Since fire incidents are decreasing, why not shift the job positon funds from FF on a fire truck to an EMT-prospective Paramedic position on the ambulance? A three person crew on the ambulance would actually be more efficient and definitely safer.
Steve Plympton Jr. Steve Plympton Jr. Saturday, December 21, 2013 4:36:29 PM Good read
Skip Kirkwood Skip Kirkwood Saturday, December 21, 2013 9:01:37 PM And why do we in non-fire EMS call the fire department for help lifting "our" patients? Why not call another EMS unit, or two or three if needed. WE should be taking care of each other, not necessarily relying on somebody else to do so? Once upon a time (Newark EMS in the 1980s), I worked a three-person ALS unit (it was a unique NJ thing). It made for great crew resource management and division of labor.
Norris Croom III Norris Croom III Saturday, December 21, 2013 9:04:14 PM Well, Skip. I would offer that there are too few EMS units to be able to send to a single call to assist. From my days at a private, we may have been the only unit available in 500 square miles. Based on what I see today, it hasn't gotten much better. Thus the need to resolve our differences, fund EMS like it needs to be, work together, and work towards providing the best patient care we can. Just a thought....
Matthew Whitt Matthew Whitt Saturday, December 21, 2013 9:07:49 PM In my area that would be correct Norris. We often times call for assistance from the FD since we only have 2 ambulances in the county. I would not call them if we had another option.
Ben Waller Ben Waller Sunday, December 22, 2013 3:28:38 AM Interagency collaboration is a more efficient use of community resources. It is also a productivity issue for career FDs...the firefighters are close by and it makes sense ro use them rather than draining other areas of EMS resources. put it another way - How many paramedics does it take to lift a patient?
Skip Kirkwood Skip Kirkwood Sunday, December 22, 2013 4:47:15 AM Ben, Norris - not all of your colleagues embrace the notion that we should all play nice together. There are places where medics are frequently "ripped" for not doing their own heavy work - and where EMS operators intentionally under-staff and rely on other agencies to do some of their work. While the cooperation is appreciated where it exists, I don't think that non-fire EMS folks should expect that they can take advantage of the largess of the fire service every time they are confronted with a physical challenge. Their own agency has an obligation to step up, also.
Scott Brown Scott Brown Sunday, December 22, 2013 1:51:31 PM In every experience I've ever had in 3rd service EMS, it's because we didn't have the extra help, as we were chronically understaffed, while the FD always had extra warm bodies.
Norris Croom III Norris Croom III Sunday, December 22, 2013 2:48:56 PM Understand all of that Skip. Been there, done that, and seen that. WE need to say this is not acceptable and WE need to fix this. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but I guess I still hold out hope that we can get beyond fire vs. non-fire vs. volunteer vs. third service vs. private so that our patients get what they deserve.
Scott Brown Scott Brown Sunday, December 22, 2013 8:23:26 PM throws SSM into utter chaos...and degrades UHU as well. Can't have any of that...

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