December 18, 2008
Non-fatal injuries to police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other public safety workers are common, but little is done to track these incidents in order to improve prevention efforts, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.
"We have pretty good information about the causes of fatalities that strike public safety employees, but we do not do enough to track the less-severe injuries that routinely strike this group of workers," said Tom LaTourrette, lead author of the study and a physical scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
Non-fatal injuries among public safety workers are far more common and create more costs for employers than fatal injuries, according to the RAND study.
"This makes the lack of good data on these kinds of injuries a serious gap," LaTourrette said. "If public safety officials were able to better track how non-fatal, yet potentially disabling injuries occur, it would be easier to design a set of interventions to help reduce the risks to workers."
The RAND study found that firefighters and police officers become more susceptible to work-related disability as they age, with workplace injuries more likely to result in permanent disability at older ages, particularly for firefighters. Focusing on preventative measures for older public safety employees could help reduce disability retirement rates.
Proper training, increased information sharing and analysis, strong safety messages from leaders and improvements to protective equipment are some of the other recommendations detailed in the study.
Better data tracking also could help monitor possible abuses of the disability retirement system by matching anomalies in the rates of disability retirement that do not correspond to any perceptible change in the rates of injury known to cause disability, according to researchers.
The RAND report found that about half of job-related deaths among firefighter are attributed to heart attacks. For police officers, about 47 percent of job-related fatalities are caused by vehicle accidents or being struck by a vehicle, and another 37 percent are due to assaults, most of which are shootings.
Despite the risks inherent in public safety jobs, police and firefighters are generally less likely to be disabled or report having poor health or leaving a job for health reasons than those in non-safety occupations, according to the study. The evidence on risk factors for heart disease was mixed: police and fire employees were found to be less likely than other workers to smoke but more likely to be obese.
Injuries from strains and sprains, largely involving musculoskeletal disorders, are the most common type of non-fatal injury across the public safety professions. Of those, the back is by far the most common body part injured.
The study also examined what kind of duty public safety employees were performing when fatal and non-fatal injuries occurred. For firefighters, most fatal and non-fatal injuries occurred while they were fighting fires; for emergency medical workers, fatal injuries were more likely to occur while they were driving, and non-fatal injuries while they were lifting and carrying patients. Driving was the most hazardous activity for police, while activities in traffic outside their patrol cars, such as directing traffic and traffic stops, also were high-risk.
Overall, work-related injuries and fatalities for public safety employees have been declining over the past few decades; however, it is not clear if these declines have resulted from safety and health improvements or other factors, such as a decrease in the number of fires.
The study, "Occupational Safety and Health for Public Safety Employees: Assessing the Evidence and the Implications for Public Policy," is available at www.rand.org. The work was sponsored by the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Other authors of the study were David S. Loughran and Seth Seabury. The work was conducted within the RAND Center for Health and Safety in the Workplace, a partnership between the RAND Institute for Civil Justice, RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment and RAND Health.