Safety 101 - Lesson 4

April 10, 2006
Maybe we need to take a lesson or two in safety from the business world and apply them to the emergency services because the elimination of accidents and illnesses is vital to the public interest, and to our organizations.

For years, there have been safety initiatives in the Emergency Services discipline, and yet we continue to injure tens of thousands of firefighters each year, and over 100 typically die in any year. Despite the initiatives that have been implemented to date, there remains an attitude that injuries and even death are a fact of life in this business. Standards are being developed and implemented, technology enhancements are being integrated into equipment, and safety training is being promoted more and more, yet there are no significant reductions in injuries and deaths to firefighters - WHY?

Maybe we need to take a lesson or two in safety from the business world and apply them to the emergency services. It is safe to say that we would all agree, the elimination of accidents and illnesses is vital to the public interest, and to our organizations. Where there is an accident or illness, it produces economic and social loss, it disrupts productivity of both the individual and the organization, it causes inefficiency to occur, and keeps the organization and individual(s) from enhancing performance.

If we look specifically at the fire service, we can refer to data accumulated and published by the National Fire Protection Association, which details firefighter injuries, illnesses, and deaths. The most recent annualized data available at the time of this writing, found the following:

  • 78,750 individuals injured in the line of duty
  • 38,045 of these occurred on the fire ground
  • 105 firefighters were killed in the line of duty
  • 15,900 collisions involving fire department emergency vehicles
  • 850 firefighter injuries occurred in these collisions.
The study further demonstrates that there has been a continual reduction in firefighter injuries over the past five years.

While firefighter injuries and fatalities were always a concern to emergency service organizations, "Occupational Safety and Health" was a relatively unknown discipline or activity in the fire and emergency medical service until the introduction of the Occupational Safety and Health Act which is relevant to state workers compensation laws and federal statutes regarding employee injury.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), authorizes the Secretary of Labor to promulgate and establish federal standards promoting occupational safety ad health. That act provides for inspections and citations for the violation of the regulations created by the Secretary of Labor. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is authorized to regulate workplace safety. Whether or not OSHA applies to you as an agency or a state, the content of the OSHA standards make good practical safety sense.

Employers have the following three responsibilities under the act:

  1. To provide a safe place to work
  2. To comply with OSHA standards
  3. To keep employee work-injury and disease records

Depending on the state, OSHA standards are enforced either directly by the federal government or indirectly via state governments, and variances can be obtained when compliance with a standard is not possible or when the employer can prove that a particular method of operation is at least as safe as what is required by compliance with the OSHA standard. OSHA can impose fines on those who violate regulations.

Over the years, the OSHAct has been successful in the investigation and analysis of serious workplace injuries and illnesses, identifying causes and driving corrective actions to prevent future incidents or reducing the severity of the incidents that do occur. This has resulted in the establishment of best practices and procedures for the enhancement of occupational safety and health. Their initiatives form the basis of much of the Occupational Safety and Health efforts in emergency services today. This topic is not new to business and industry and we can learn from them, as well as from emergency service initiatives.

Each year, tens of thousands of firefighters are injured while fighting fires, rescuing people, responding to hazardous materials incidents, and training for their job. While the majority of injuries are minor, a significant number are debilitating and career ending. Such injuries exact both a great human toll and financial toll. The costs the firefighters bear - economically and in terms of pain and suffering - are immense. The jurisdictions where they work must also absorb the direct costs of lost work time, possibly higher insurance premiums, disability and early retirement payments, overtime for substitutes, and costs to train replacement personnel.

This above referenced study, "The Economic Consequences of Firefighter Injuries and Their Prevention", found that there were approximately 1.1 million firefighters in the United States during the time data was evaluated for. Given the number of injuries and the number of firefighters, the average rate of accidents, firefighters were found to have an abnormally higher rate of injuries per worker than in most other occupations.

Over the years, basic measures of preventing accidents and injuries have been developed by major organizations. The National Safety Council advocates the following four measures, in the order of effectiveness and preference. They include:

  • First, eliminate the hazard from the machine, method, material or plant structure
  • Second, control the hazard by enclosing or guarding it at its source
  • Third, train personnel to be aware of the hazard and to follow safe job procedures to avoid it, and
  • Fourth, prescribe personal protective equipment for personnel to shield them against the hazard.

Lesson #4

Safety practices in business and industry have helped reduce losses and its impact in the business community for years, and these same practices make perfect sense for the emergency services discipline as well. We only have to apply them at all levels of the organization.

Safety 101 -A new series from the technical and administrative perspective, designed to help you reduce emergency responder injuries, illnesses, property loss and death!


Dr. William F. Jenaway, CSP, CFO, CFPS is Executive Vice President of VFIS and has over 30 years experience in Safety and Risk Management, in the insurance industry. Bill is also an adjunct professor in Risk Analysis in the Graduate School at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He was named "Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year" as Chief of the King of Prussia (PA) Volunteer Fire Company, and is the author the text Emergency Service Risk Management.

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