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Lightening the load: A focus on paramedic injury prevention delivers positive results

BCEHS outfitted every ambulance in the province with new power stretchers, load systems, and lifting equipment to help prevent injuries. As a result, rates of the previously most common injuries have steadily declined over the last six years.
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​Historically, two of the top injury-causing activities for BCEHS paramedics were raising and lowering manual stretchers, and loading and unloading the stretchers into ambulances. The heavy, repetitive work was contributing to musculoskeletal injuries such as sprains and strains among paramedics. 

So, BCEHS implemented a five-year injury prevention program, working closely ergonomists from the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) health and safety team. 

Between 2017 and 2021, every ambulance across the province was outfitted with new power load systems, power stretchers, and ELK emergency lifting cushions, along with training and education provided for paramedics.

Injuries caused by lifting, transferring patients, and equipment handling have been steadily declining since the program started. 

In 2016, musculoskeletal injuries such as back strains and other sprains represented over 80 per cent of all BCEHS employee time-loss injury claims. By 2022, those injuries have dropped to represent less than 60 per cent of all time-loss claims. 

Tables showing declining rates and numbers of injuries

Notably, injuries specifically from stretcher raising and lowering went from a high of 56 time-loss injuries in 2016 to three time-loss injuries total over the last four years.

Preventing injuries has a positive impact on paramedics’ work and lives

Implementing the program required a massive team effort to deliver equipment and training to every corner of the province on tight timelines, says Ryan Ackerman, a senior leader in practice education. Ryan said he’s proud to have played a small part by helping with training and rollout in the Lower Mainland.

“This program felt like a significant step in BCEHS taking action and investing so that employee safety and wellness is consistently our first thought, not an afterthought,” says Ryan. “Looking at our work practices and working with expert ergonomists, BCEHS was able to secure a world-class equipment that’s really reduced the injury burden.” 
James Fang, a full-time paramedic at BCEHS for 23 years, says he’s seen the before-and-after positive impact of the targeted program. “After years of manually moving and lifting patients and having suffered multiple back injuries and ongoing body fatigue, I am very grateful for the roll-out of this new equipment.” 

James feels strongly about injury prevention, for both professional and personal reasons.

“Keeping healthy and strong isn't only beneficial because you’re not missing work days – it’s also because if injured, you don't get to enjoy your time off, doing the activities you do outside of work…Personally speaking, it’s terrible when you can't pick up your kids or play with them.”  

James also teaches new paramedics, and emphasizes that training and good work practices remain vital to prevent injuries – but having the right equipment at BCEHS is paramount.

“Most of our new paramedics were taught on manual equipment at their training schools and are amazed by the simplicity and ease-of-use of our equipment. We teach them how to perform both power and manual loading and unloading, and they’re always amazed and happy to have access to the power equipment,” James says.

In addition to preventing injuries, the program has also dramatically reduced the risks of cumulative musculoskeletal micro-damage that occurs from repetitive, heavy lifting over time. 

Looking ahead, Ryan says he’s optimistic for how the power-lifting equipment and injury prevention training will continue to impact paramedics’ daily work. 

“I’ve had multiple low back injuries in my 20-year career, and so many people from my generation of paramedics have nagging pains and chronic injuries because of heavy lifting multiple times a shift,” says Ryan, who transitioned to his current education role after 15 years as a paramedic. “Now, any time I push a button to automatically load someone, I feel super grateful that there’s a whole new generation of paramedics who won’t face the same risk of injuries from lifting and loading.”

Making progress on BCEHS’ injury prevention journey

Troy Collins, a PHSA ergonomics consultant who supports BCEHS, says the program highlights how investing in prevention can pay off.  

“We’ve seen tangible benefits by targeting what were previously the leading causes of injuries,” says Troy. “It’s not about flipping a switch for overnight changes, it’s about a steady journey of consistently taking steps in the right direction.” 

Mike Michalko, Senior Provincial Executive Director, Clinical Operations, is proud of the seven-year journey to reduce musculoskeletal injuries through prevention. “This program has virtually eliminated a significant injury point for paramedics in their day-to-day work and reduced their cumulative MSI injury and risks throughout their careers,” says Mike. “Injury prevention is one of the key pieces to make sure we’re looking after the people who work at BCEHS.” 

But, Mike emphasizes there’s always more to do. “We’re continually looking at ways to improve and reduce injuries. We have other ongoing injury prevention projects, along with important programs to aid recovery and return to work if people get injured, and initiatives to better support employee’s mental health and wellness.”

“Ultimately, our people at BCEHS are the foundation of our service and the patients we care for,” says Mike. “BCEHS as an organization is committed to caring for our people and supporting their health and wellness from hire to retire.”

Read the 2021/22 progress report for more information on how BCEHS is improving and expanding programs to keep employees well, support recovery, and return to work.
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