Persistent firefighters’ injuries make them ‘working wounded’

Claudio Mostacci//Hamilton Fire Department

Hamilton firefighters battle a blaze.

The longer a firefighter’s career, the greater the chances of suffering from persistent neck, back and limb pain, research co-authored at Western University shows. Fully 70 per cent of all active firefighters who participated in the recent year-long study experienced at least some pain in their arms, legs and back during that time; almost half experienced pain in multiple sites.

“They call themselves the working wounded sometimes, because they’re well aware they’re suffering musculoskeletal issues,” says Joy MacDermid, a member of the university’s interdisciplinary Bone and Joint Institute and a professor of Physical Therapy.

The study of injuries among almost 300 working Hamilton firefighters is the first to quantify by age, sex and length of service who is most prone to suffering musculoskeletal injury, and where and how intense that pain is.

The data suggests cumulative effects of pulling, twisting and turning have long-term impact on firefighters’ bodies. Now researchers have clues to reducing risks and lengthening careers that are often cut short by injury, said MacDermid, project director for FIREWELL (Firefighter Injury Reduction Enterprise: Wellness Enabled Life & Livelihood), who holds the James Roth Research Chair in Musculoskeletal Measurement and Knowledge Translation. She is also director of clinical research at the Roth McFarlane Hand and Upper Limb Centre at St. Joseph’s Health Care London and a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute.

By contrast with the overwhelming percentage of injured firefighters who are still on the job, 2013 Statistics Canada data shows 16 per cent of adult Canadians suffered activity-limiting injuries in the previous year.

Claudio Mostacci//Hamilton Fire DepartmentHamilton firefighters battle a blaze.

Rob D’Amico, a Captain with the Hamilton Fire Department and secretary of the Hamilton Professional Fire Fighters Association, said firefighters must often crouch, twist and climb while hefting 50 kilograms of gear. “Our members get hurt doing their duties. Maybe some of those duties can be done differently and using different techniques – and having a sense of what the injuries are is a good first step.”

D’Amico noted the fire department and fire association endorsed and supported the research. The paper was co-authored through the McMaster School of Rehabilitation Science and is published in the Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health.

 Quick facts:

  • 294 Hamilton firefighters log injuries/pain during 13-month period
  • 70 per cent experience pain/injury; 42 per cent of men have pain in multiple places
  • Firefighters older than median age of 42 were four times more likely than younger colleagues to have neck pain; twice as likely to have back pain; and twice as likely to have pain in upper and lower limbs.
  • Among younger firefighters, upper-limb pain (mostly rotator-cuff in shoulders) the most common
  • The study included eight women, too few for many definitive conclusions, but enough to show they too bear a higher-than-average burden of musculoskeletal injury.

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Joy MacDermid
Hamilton Fire Capt. Rob D'Amico
Hamilton firefighters battle a blaze.

Hamilton firefighters battle a blaze.