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Lifting correctly prevents crippling back injuries

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By CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 JACK MCLAUGHLIN

Flying helicopters in the U.S. Army left me with many near-miss and sweat-bullet-inducing memories. My current profession — firefighting — has done the same thing. Firefighting has many inherent hazards, and the risk management tools Soldiers have are useful to the fire service.

Having been an active duty warrant officer aviator for seven years, I understand that the military and civilian worlds are similar and both can learn from one another. There are always
new tactics, strategies and techniques to learn, in addition to maintaining proficiency in basic tasks in both services. A recent push in the fire service is called “Rescuing
the Rescuer.” We have lost many firefighters who re-entered a burning building to find a missing comrade, never to return. So we have developed equipment and tactics to
aid in retrieving a
fallen brother. Now we reach the crux of my story.

My lieutenant decided our company —which consists of an apparatus and its crew, usually three or four people — and the ladder truck company would run a rapid intervention team drill. The RIT is a set of rescuers with special tools like extra breathing air, infrared imaging cameras, extrication equipment and one mission:to locate and retrieve a missing or trapped firefighter. One engineer was pulled to be the victim, and my lieutenant was evaluating. That left me as engineer — approximately warrant officer rank — with one firefighter II and two rookies to run the drill to respond, locate and remove the downed firefighter to safety.

My four-man team donned our bunker gear and self-contained breathing apparatus, gathered our equipment and waited for the mayday call. I briefed my team that we would stay together during transit and room entry. We’d then split into two teams of two to search single rooms, one team going right and the other left. This would preserve crew integrity, keep our equipment within our working area and split our search time in half.

Then the call came: “Mayday, mayday, mayday! Engineer Smith, Truck 654. I’m lost and low on air. Last known location was upstairs storeroom. Repeat, low on air!” Knowing this was a drill didn’t prevent the adrenaline rush and sense of urgency flooding my body. My team and I moved toward the last known location of the lost man. We were wearing our packs and masks but had not attached our air regulators. This not only saved air for real emergencies, but caused our masks to fog over inside, simulating zero-visibility conditions.

Climbing the stairs to the attic storeroom, I told one rookie to come with me to the left and sent the
senior firefighter and other rookie to the right. We could not see so we maintained contact with the wall as we swept the room. The fallen firefighter’s personal alert safety system was filling
the area with its shrieking wail, so we knew he was close. Unfortunately, the storeroom was full of crates, boxes and
furniture that bounced the sound around
and impeded our progress.

The right-hand team located our victim under a sofa. He was completely unresponsive. We hooked him into the spare air so he would be able to breathe, and gathered to move him into a Stokes basket — a deep-dished thermoplastic stretcher with a metal frame. One rookie was at the victim’s head and the other at his feet, and the senior firefighter was providing light with a hand-held searchlight. I was squatting on the left-hand side of the victim, aligning the basket for loading.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that firefighting gear is cumbersome, heavy and hot. The turnout suit, SCBA and assorted gear weighs about 100 pounds and restricts range of motion. Our victim was not a small guy, and we were already taxed. The rookies couldn’t leverage him into the Stokes, so I reached over, grabbed his SCBA belt, lifted him over the lip of the stretcher and strained my back. I was now useless.

I managed to supervise the victim’s removal to the predesignated safe area, dress down and drink a gallon of water (along with a handful of Ibuprofen). Hobbling back to my bunk, I curled up and hoped we did not have a call for the rest of the shift (which we didn’t). I took the next two shifts off (Class C, right?). I had the vacation time and knew I was going on orders to attend school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Ice packs, rest and stretching allowed me to function at a rudimentary level and prepare my household for my departure. In all, my recovery was complete in a couple of weeks.

Lesson learned — In my haste to accomplish the mission and impress my lieutenant and the rookies, I ignored my training, used a poor lifting technique and injured myself. I was impatient and wanted out of my bunker gear. I should have slowed the exercise, taken charge of the rookies and told them how to perform the task rather than trying to lift the victim by myself. I also should have remembered I still needed to perform my duties for the rest of that and the next two shifts. I could have injured myself permanently. I deprived my department, company and lieutenant of a seasoned, highly trained technical expert, which could have resulted in injury or death to someone else had there been a real emergency. This is a lesson that applies to both military and civilian worlds.

Back injuries are a leading cause of lost time from work. They can cause pain, inconvenience and a lifetime of suffering. Lifting incorrectly is a major contributor to back injuries. These injuries are not confined to workers who do heavy lifting all day long. As shown in the article above, back injuries occur in all kinds of jobs, so it is important for everyone to understand how to lift safely.

First, plan your lift. Take a good look at the load, determining size, weight, shape and how it is positioned. Could the load be too heavy, too big or too awkward for you to move by yourself?

Also plan the route which you will take. Look for any potential problems such as a slippery or uneven floor surface or
obstacles along the way. Don’t forget to have a look at the spot where you will set down the load so you can determine any difficulties.

Follow these
guidelines when picking up a load:

n Get as close as possible to the load.

n Position your feet about shoulder-width apart. If necessary, straddle the load.

n Tuck in your backside and bend your knees.

n Never bend from the waist or stretch out your upper body.

n Squat down and lift the load by using the strength of your leg muscles rather than your back.

n Never twist your body when carrying a load. If it is necessary to turn, move your feet rather than your body.

n Before you start to move with the load, be sure you can see over it.

n When setting down the load, make sure you do not put strain on your back by bending over. Squat down again if necessary.

There’s no point in getting a back injury by trying to be a hero with a heavy load. Get help if you need it. Two or more people can do a team lift. Mechanical aids such as a hand truck or pallet jack can also be called into service.

Some lifts require special techniques, such as:

n If you must lift a load higher than your shoulders, use a stepstool, stepladder or similar safe device.

n It can also be tough to pick up a load from deep inside a bin. In this case, get close to the load and press your bent knees gainst the bin.

n For light objects in a bin, flex one knee and swing the other leg out behind you. Use one hand on the edge of the bin for balance, and use the other
hand to pick up the item.

Lifting correctly
and safely is well worth the effort. It can save you a painful
and crippling back injury.