Ask the Back School: Firefighter Injuries

Safety March 26, 2015

In this edition of Ask the Back School our long time collaborator and author of our online course Safety 101: An Introduction and Overview, Melissa Black, answers this question from a former student:

FirefighterDo you have any information back injuries associated with wearing self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)?

Melissa combines decades of experience along with some of the most recent research to give this incredibly thoughtful response:

You can find great information in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report on firefighter injures (DOWNLOAD). Although this occupation does have an increased risk of stress/stain and back injuries, SCBAs are not considered the predominate proximate cause.  Lifting of various tools of the trade (apparatus accessories such as truck chocks, portable pumps, valves/hoses, ladders, ALL gear, etc.) in addition to non-oxygenated or “cold” muscle response during wake up calls, lifestyle habits (oddly many still smoke and are overweight) and patient lifting  are all significant back injury stressors. Training and “macho competition” (both women and men) that occurs also takes a huge toll on a firefighter’s body parts (non-response mode injuries). It should be noted that there are still few women firefighters-as the physical demands are significant and many women cannot pass the physical entry testing.  ​

The stats for SCBAs are not broken out.  In my experience (both 23 years with Gwinnett County and now with firefighterss from all over the nation in my classes at CSU) SCBAs are no where near the top of a list in safety or ergonomic concerns. I have never heard of a worker’s compensation injury from lifting a SCBA (although I am confident one has happened at some point). However, it is the cumulative stress along with conditioning that seems to result in back injures for this occupation. Also, new materials have resulted in SCBAs now being lighter, I imagine it would be hard to quantify them as a risk since they do so much to protect firefighters.

Vehicle accidents and heart attacks are still their largest risk areas. New programs for wellness and healthy lifestyle and conditioning/fitness criteria have been increasing but more needs to be done. The “jump and run” adrenaline rush along with the chronic exposure to partially combusted toxins (on boots/gear- post event) has been attributed to the increased rate of heart attacks and these are areas that continues to be researched.  Since post 911 firefighter health data I expect many new discoveries in the next 5 years regarding risk and exposure. I also see SCBA use increasing. With new and improved materials constructed with nanomaterial, SCBAs will be lighter and less of a risk for back injures.

Have questions for us? Drop us a line in the comments!


One thought


  • Julie Collier

    Melissa did a wonderful job capturing the big picture of injury risk issues in firefighting. I have worked in-house with a large county in the Washington DC suburbs for 11 years. SCBAs were rarely related to an injury. Either donning with shoulder related injury or sitting in engine with spinous process fracture! Our injury reviews indicate most injuries occur to/from incidents, during drills and training along with awkward postures on EMS calls. The population that is drawn to firefighting are also over doers….Part of our injury prevention strategies are to encourage “conscientious” exercise with reasonable recovery. Keep your eyes open for the updated IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Initiative in it’s fourth edition this year. The fitness chapter has gone through a “paradigm” shift, incorporating quality movement patterns into training for fire service peer fitness trainers. It is what we do in rehab so a nice connection for those of you working with FDs. I have incorporated NFPA 1592 functional standards into the rehab chapter so rehab providers have more context for functional/performance training during rehab.

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