Emergency medical services (EMS) workers are at higher risk for occupational health issues than the general working population. According to the most recent injury data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 21,900 EMS providers were treated for their injuries in U.S. hospital emergency departments in 2016. Common events leading to these injuries include overexertion, falls, exposure to harmful substances, and workplace violence, which is frequently underreported.
Common Causes of Ambulance Crew Injuries
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that ambulance crews are most at risk for injuries such as sprains and strains, exposures to blood and bodily fluids, and falls. According to a study by a researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between eight and nine emergency medical workers out of every 100 are treated in hospitals for occupational injuries, whereas only two out of every 100 workers in all other jobs are treated as such.
Some of the most common causes of these injuries are:
Lifting patients – Ambulance crews and other emergency workers are often tasked with moving patients in and out of emergency vehicles. This type of heavy and frequent, often awkward lifting causes workers to suffer strain injuries, typically to the back and neck.
Kneeling and bending – Sprains and strains are common in the emergency medical services industry. Kneeling, bending, and twisting in awkward positions can lead to musculoskeletal and repetitive stress injuries.
Exposure to bodily fluids – Dealing with sick or injured patients comes with certain risks such as being exposed to blood or bodily fluids, being spit on, or contracting an infectious disease.
Workplace Assault and Violence
Ambulance crews are also at risk for another, less reported workplace hazard – violence. According to an epidemiologist and former New York City paramedic, assaults on EMS personnel occur at a rate of at least 22 times higher than any other occupation. His research on the rate of assaults against EMS workers also reveals that most cases go unreported.
A recent case involving the attack of two Boston EMTs brought increased attention to the topic of emergency medical worker safety. The two workers were transporting a psychiatric patient when she allegedly sprayed them with pepper spray and stabbed one of the workers seven times. The Boston EMS reports that it is working with local law enforcement to improve policy and procedures and provide enhanced self-defense training for its EMTs.
Protecting Ambulance Crews from Workplace Injury
Some agencies have provided ambulance crews with bulletproof vests to protect them from violent attacks, however it is uncertain whether the vests improve worker safety. Vests are heavy and can therefore cause workers to tire quicker while wearing them.
As for decreasing the number of musculoskeletal injuries in the industry, a researcher at the CDC notes that while there is better technology on the market such as powered equipment designed to lift patients, it often comes at a high price – one that emergency medical agencies and departments may not be willing or able to pay.