Evaluation of noise, stress, and injury risk among firefighters

Faculty Researcher: Richard Neitzel, PhD, CIH, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan

A firefighter operating extraction tools with no hearing protection.

A firefighter operating extraction tools with no hearing protection.

Firefighting is dangerous work: firefighters can experience high noise levels, stress, and fatigue on the job, and are at high risk of injury. Despite the high potential for injury, researchers don’t yet have a full understanding of the extent that the conditions they are exposed to on the job make firefighters susceptible to injury. To assess the effects of noise and stress on injury, this study examined conditions at a unique firefighter training facility, the Illinois Fire Service Institute. The 56 firefighters in the study were involved in realistic training exercises throughout their one-week, 40-hour training. Throughout each training session, researchers measured noise levels that the firefighters were exposed to. They assessed firefighters’ stress levels by monitoring their heart rates and measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. Firefighters also filled out surveys, where they described their level of fatigue and stress, their perceived exposure to noise, their health status, and their injury experience.

Extraction and stabilization operations on a complex pile-up.

Extraction and stabilization operations on a complex pile-up.

The study’s surveys found that the rate of serious injuries in the past year among the participating firefighters was far higher than the all-industry average for the US. Eleven injuries occurred among the 56 firefighters just during their one week participation period, though none of these injuries were serious. We found that when stress was measured using firefighters’ survey responses, it was associated with an increased risk of injuries and near-misses. When stress was measured using heart rate and cortisol, however, there was no relationship between stress and injury. Our study results also showed that noise was associated with an increased risk of injury and near-misses.

These findings highlight the hazardous nature of firefighting work, and suggest that to keep firefighter injury rates low, injury prevention programs may have to take into account factors like noise, stress, and fatigue. The results of our study and subsequent studies may inform occupational health policy among first responders, guide best practice approaches for training and execution of firefighting activities, and ultimately result in reduced rates of injuries among firefighters.

Project Abstract

Publications resulting from this project:
Neitzel RL, Long RN, Sun K, Sayler S, von Thaden TL. Injury Risk and Noise Exposure in Firefighter Training Operations. Annals of Occupational Hygiene. 2016;60(4):405-420. doi: 10.1093/annhyg/mev088. PMCID: PMC4829339.