5 EMS back injury prevention tips

To be in the EMS profession for the long haul, following these simple lifting tips every day will pay off in the future


The risk of violence at an EMS scene is real and tragically common, but an even more common occurrence is the risk of back injury and other soft tissue strains and sprains while lifting and moving patients.

Being an EMS provider is one of the more hazardous jobs in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were over 21,000 injuries reported by EMS providers in 2014. Thirty-five percent of these injuries were reported to be sprains and strains. Another 35 percent were from overexertion.

That means there are about 20 soft tissue injuries being reported by EMS providers every day. Let's ignore the fact that this number is likely dramatically underreported – too many of us won't go through the hassle of getting paperwork processed and be seen by a physician for a back injury, lumbar strain, shoulder ache or knee sprain.

Always lift and move the patient cot with a partner. (Photo/Santa Rosa Junior College)
Always lift and move the patient cot with a partner. (Photo/Santa Rosa Junior College)

Here are five career-prolonging tips for the next time you have to move a patient:

1. Think before you lift.

When I was in my 20s, I didn't think twice about lifting 200 to 300 pounds with just one other partner. I still didn't consider the consequences after suffering my first, then second back injury.

Thirty years later, I wish I had paid attention to my body when the aches and pains didn't complain as much as they do now. Before you attempt a lift, go through a mental checklist and make sure you have put yourself in the best position to lift anything over 10 pounds.

2. There's no need to be macho.

Be it a two-person dead lift of a gurney or a one person move of a power cot, many of us continue to risk injury unnecessarily. Know your limitations. Use two rescuers to raise a power cot into the rig. Do a four-person lift of a gurney from floor level.

If there aren't enough EMS providers on scene, call for assistance and wait. There's simply no reason to muscle out of a situation and hurt yourself in the process.

3. Consider alternatives to lifting.

The days of lifting and carrying every patient to a gurney are long gone. In many cases, patients are able to walk with assistance to a gurney waiting outside a difficult extrication scene or into the ambulance. Perform a thorough assessment of the patient's condition to make sure they are capable of such activity and have rescuers nearby to assist as needed.

4. Assistive technology is helpful.

This 2017 Canadian study appears to validate the notion that having access to assistive technology such as power cots helps to reduce injuries. While the initial cost of such devices can be steep, the potential for injury reduction, cost savings and a better chance of growing old in the profession far outweigh the investment.

5. Be fit to lift.

No amount of technology will replace the basic need for being physically fit for the job. All of us have heard how keeping our weight down and our physical activity up will help us live longer and healthier.

Actually doing it is the challenge. Build in better eating habits and mild physical activity during a shift to help you avoid injury. Even simple stretching exercises will help reduce the chance of getting hurt.

I know of too many wonderful people who have had to leave the industry due to an injury. My aching body reminds me daily the toll of having the privilege of being in this job. If you're going to be in the profession for the long haul, simple things that you do today will pay off in the future.

About the author

Art Hsieh, MA, NRP teaches in Northern California at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. An EMS provider since 1982, Art has served as a line medic, supervisor 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 textbook writer, author of "EMT Exam for Dummies," has presented at conferences nationwide and continues to provide direct patient care regularly. Art is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Contact Art at Art.Hsieh@ems1.com and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

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