Student researcher

Alex Redshaw Research Leader

Firefighting is a dangerous and physically demanding occupation (Stanek et al. 2017, p. 213), with Cornell and colleagues (2017, p. 2223) identifying firefighters to be at an injury risk seven times greater than the general population. Research into North American fire services by Ebersole, Cornell and Gnacinski (2017, p. 1060) showed that 55% of injuries sustained annually, were sprains and strains. These findings align with the injury claims data obtained by the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (SAMFS), as most firefighting injuries (33%) were also identified as sprains and strains (Van Hooff et al. 2017, p. 16). Musculoskeletal injuries represent a significant economic cost to the fire service, with millions of dollars spent annually on injury compensation (South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service 2018, p.12). Injuries can adversely affect the wellbeing of emergency service personnel, significantly influencing overall quality of life and professional practice for these individuals.

Movement quality and physical fitness are key physical function performance indicators, with prior studies linking these domains to musculoskeletal injuries in athletic and general populations (Reichard and Jackson 2010, p. 6; Katzmarzyk et al. 2008, p. 1004). More recently, emergency response organisations have begun assessing these physical performance indicators to reduce injury rates (Butler et al. 2013, pp. 11-17; Storer et al. 2014, p. 661-671; Ebersole, Cornell and Gnacinski 2017, p. 1060). Butler and colleagues (2013, pp. 11-17) examined the relationship between movement capacity and injury risk of firefighters, citing poor movement quality to be closely associated with increased musculoskeletal injury risk.

In addition to movement quality, physical fitness and activity levels are strongly associated with injury status among firefighters (Poplin et al. 2014, p. 150). Acute performance of vigorous exercise has been closely linked with an increased risk of adverse health events within chronically sedentary populations (Norton and Norton 2018, p. 22). Poor levels of aerobic fitness are particularly dangerous in firefighter populations with several critical occupational tasks requiring up to ~90% of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) (von Heimburg, Rasmussen and Medbo 2006, p. 124; Smith, Barr and Kales 2013, p. 3). Therefore, maintaining a high level of aerobic fitness is critical to minimise the risks associated with high levels of physical exertion in a first responder workforce (Smith 2011, p. 171).

The implementation of well-designed exercise programs for fire service personnel will facilitate improvements in movement quality and overall physical fitness. Improvements of these key physical capacity domains will extend time to muscular fatigue, a critical factor associated with injury rates in firefighters (Smith 2011, p. 171). Increased aerobic fitness levels would also reduce the risk of the adverse health effects that are associated with chronic sedentary behaviour and aging (Smith 2011, p. 171; Norton and Norton 2018, p. 22).

An often-overlooked contributing factor of musculoskeletal injuries within emergency services is the impact of shift work on cognitive fatigue. Increased cognitive fatigue in shift workers is the consequence of reduced sleep, impaired sleep quality and disturbed sleeping patterns (Vogel et al. 2012, p. 1127). Cognitive fatigue has been strongly linked to increased rates of workplace injuries as fatigue reduces alertness and work performance (Vogel et al. 2012, p. 1127).

The aim of the proposed study is to examine the movement requirements of critical occupational tasks and the movement capacity norms for current SAMFS firefighters. These outcomes will be achieved through two studies; (1) accurately defining the movement requirements associated with the critical tasks of Australian urban firefighting, and (2) conducting movement screen assessments of career firefighters to establish a contemporary ‘normative’ database. It should be noted that the aerobic fitness of firefighters will not be addressed within this study as another SAMFS funded Master’s by Research project will be addressing this specific area of functional fitness. The findings of this research will provide pertinent information to monitor and improve the health and fitness of the SAMFS workforce.