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It takes a village to create culture of wellness

Numerous small yet effective steps can be taken to begin truly engaging everyone in culture of fitness, wellness, ergonomic excellence

It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a village to help guide us on our paths through life. To make good choices and become good people, essentially why we do what we do for a living, it takes all of us to foster that growth.

One of the hot topics in EMS and fire is "a culture of safety" or "safe EMS," but no matter what label we put on a safety program, it is only as strong as its weakest link.

When I spent my years on the street as a medic, I was able to look at public safety from the outside in as the rehab and fitness guy, and from the inside out as the dedicated and seasoned public safety professional. What I saw and learned is that as a culture, our "village" is in serious disarray.

For the past five years, I have had the opportunity to hone my skills in ergonomics, injury prevention, fitness and wellness in public safety. Sure, mistakes have happened as the program has grown, but that's how we learn.

One common and very disturbing theme, however, has emerged at EVERY department we train. The village is full of idiots!

Now I am not saying we are idiots individually, but as a culture, a village, we are going to have a very hard time producing medics and firefighters whose bodies last their full career.

With injury rates near catastrophic levels among the highest of all professions, our village is burning.

We have learned with our ergonomics training that no matter how much education we provide, both didactic and hands-on, responders will fall back into the same old faulty and dangerous behaviors; the village has failed to reinforce what is right.

The ideal "village"

Fast forward to a department that has a village full of responders who all help each other to remain injury-free and fit, to lift and transfer properly at all costs, to eat well and to exercise. This village has responders that positively coach, remind, challenge and strictly adhere to principles of ergonomics and wellness that proactively reduce injury while improving wellness and morale.

This village no longer "blames" obese patients, high call volume or internal politics for its lack of professional behavior; its responders use their tools and ergonomic education to understand that we have only one body and if we break it, it's a long road back to health that some will never complete.

Safety is already ingrained in us as a profession. We are trained to look for dangers, apply strict scene safety and wear PPE, but few apply this same concept to ergonomics and wellness. You would not allow your partner to walk into a violent scene, but we as a culture turn a blind eye to dangerous lifting and transfer techniques, and we ignore obesity and poor fitness in our peers as if it's not our place to say anything.

For public safety to become a true culture of safety, to become a village that takes care of its own, it will take all of us. No longer can crew members lift with poor mechanics just because that's the way they have always done it.

No longer can a crew devour a double burger, fries and sugary drink and call it "nutrition."

No longer can we turn our back on poor fitness and a lack of physical ability standards.

Strength, flexibility, endurance, strict attention to patient handling ergonomics, pre-shift stretching, wellness and fitness committees and proper nutrition will become the norm in this village, not the exception.

Starting small

Frankly, with many departments spending more than $250k per year and still more in workers' compensation costs directly from lifting and transferring injury, we do not have much of a choice. Our village needs to focus on how to do things together, not just getting it done.

I was teaching my "Train the Trainer, Ergonomic Safety Officer" course a few months ago, and at its conclusion, I asked the group of newly trained ESOs what they thought about the content and scope of the class. One supervisor stood up and, with a gleam in his eye, thanked me, asking where I was 15 years ago when he suffered his first of several back injuries.

Another FTO chimed in that she finally realized that almost all the patient handling techniques she was taught by her "village" peers actually cause many of the injuries and that she has been teaching her trainees wrong.

Still another pupil, a training officer, simply stated that the class taught him to use his body as the tool it is. He added that it will take the focus of everyone on the street to make sure that the village steps up to look after its own, to make sure there are no weak links in the chain. The village is also responsible, he said, for everyone on the street.

As I have been writing in this column for years, there are numerous small yet effective steps you can take as an individual or department to begin truly engaging every employee in a culture of fitness, wellness and ergonomic excellence.

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In this case, the journey begins with the village taking that first step together.

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