Physical Standards in Recruiting – are our tests getting the right people?

One of my passions in my working life is exploring the idea of how we best prepare and maintain the physicality of individuals for the rigours of life as a police officer, a firefighter or as a soldier. In fact, any occupation that requires a level of physicality draws my interest and critically, how different organisations use testing to select those most likely to succeed in the job.

In 2017 I was fortunate to be awarded a Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship, where I visited the US, UK, Netherlands and Italy to investigate this very thing. How do we recruit those with the physical attributes required to do the job and then, when we select those individuals, how do we ensure that they remain physically resilient throughout their careers? I was lucky to talk to individuals from a range of backgrounds, all committed to recruiting the best and then retaining them by minimising injuries at work. While their approaches differed, all worked from the principle of testing the right things, at the right time based on evidence not guesswork.

If we look at fire services in Australia as an example, while the job is at its core very similar regardless of jurisdiction, every service has its own standards and ways to test individuals. This also appears to be the case for police services. So, although some differences occur, why is it that there is such a disparity in standards and testing procedures across the different services?

When testing the physicality of potential recruits therefore, two things need to be considered

1) Does this person have the necessary physical attributes that will ensure that they can successfully undertake the work tasks asked of them? Think dragging a hose or chasing a criminal over a fence.

2) Is this person sufficiently resilient to minimise the risk of injury at work, be that acute or chronic. For a firefighter, every time they step out of a truck they have ~23kg of equipment on them…

So back to my original question. Are we, as services employing tests that best support both of the above aims? And from there, how can we be sure that our tests are correct? In many jurisdictions around the world, employing a test requires the potential employer to present a justification for that test and also a justification for the standard that is being tested to. In fire services in the UK, the aerobic fitness standard equates to approximately 8.7 on a beep test. In Australia???

Many of our testing regimes have come from our history and in many cases the best guess of well-intentioned training staff. When these tests lack scientific credibility we are exposing ourselves to the risk of selecting the wrong people, both by including some duds and also excluding those who are likely to succeed. I look to the example of a female firefighter. Do we want one who can run 10 on a beep test or one who may be slightly less fit but has the strength and muscular endurance to do the day to day work of a firefighter?

My challenge therefore to all tactical services is this. Are your tests defensible from the standpoint of being valid assessments of the needs of your day to day work? How many of your tests are used to “test the ticker” of individuals rather than whether they will be able to do the job?

For anyone wishing to explore this concept, I am willing and available to work with you.IMG_0083

Are we being fair to those we employ?

Like many of you, yesterdays news that NASA cancelled a spacewalk for one of its female astronauts was puzzling, regardless of whether you sit on the side of this being sexism or normal After all, surely an organisation like NASA who (I can only assume) would check every bolt, every fuse, every wire over and over again, would make sure that everyone has the right gear to wear when they get to space…. surely……

While I will readily admit I know nothing about space travel or the way that NASA does business, instead I look to my world – firefighting – and ask is this something that could happen for us? In general terms, everyone gets issued with every bit of gear that they need to do their job so the answer in its broadest sense is probably not. My question however is, are we giving them gear that ensures that they can do their job WELL and do their job SAFELY? In essence, are we really taking diversity seriously or is it just one of those things we put on our wall saying we have X% of firefighters who are female, regardless of if we break them because of the the gear that we buy and we issue without critical analysis of their physical needs.

Recently, I was fortunate to be part of an international research project, asking female firefighters (over 800 from 14 countries) all about their working conditions, struggles that they have and areas for improvement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 58% of female firefighters stated that their gear didn’t properly fit them!!! That is crazy! Surely if we just buy smaller sizes then the gear will fit just fine? Surely if we just ask for a “womens cut” from people unfamiliar with how we do our work that will be enough? Again, the numbers say otherwise – we are failing our newest recruits at the first hurdle.

We know that males and females have vastly different anthropometrics and body shapes (acknowledging that women are just as different from each other too!). We know that differences in hip angles change force distribution during landings. We know that the chest of a woman looks vastly different to that of a man. We know that women are, on average smaller and lighter than men…. so why is it that we think that simply “pinking it and shrinking it” will be enough?? Our previous study of firefighting boots indicated that their design is directly influencing the likelihood of male firefighters getting injured – and they are the ones we are designing the gear for. How can we expect that our females won’t be equally, or more so, as injured when we can’t even get it right for the majority?

My challenge therefore to those of you out there in positions where you can make a difference here is as follows

For scientists, we need to continue to critically analyse the needs of our staff (male and female) to provide an understanding of how differences in biomechanics, anthropometrics and physiology impact on the likelihood of our people getting injured. Then the next challenge is how do we get that information out there?

For manufacturers and suppliers. Here in Australia we say “never bullshit a bullshitter”. Make the time to understand what our people need and actually do something about it. Give us products that have been developed with scientific rigour. Don’t just tell us that your gear is awesome, as unfortunately few fire services have the technical understanding of what it is that you are selling us. In my experience, neither do your sales people.

For those procuring gear. Learn to understand the science or at the very least listen to those who do. Stop buying shiny things with no critical questioning of whether the gear actually does what they say it does. If they say that the PPE will reduce heat stress – ask them how? If they say that a helmet is better or safer – make them prove it! Simply giving people gear and asking them “how it feels” isn’t really cutting edge procurement!

To my mind, simply making sure that there are more women in fire services is shooting for the the lowest bar we can find. The true challenge, is to work out how do we make sure that everyone gets to have a long career, free particularly of injuries that we cause by making them wear gear that isn’t designed with them in mind. If we can’t get this right, how can we possibly get more complex industrial issues right.

Not all risks can be seen from the surface

amphibian-animal-close-up-207001As an Australian, I have grownup acutely aware of dangerous things living in the natural world around me. From snakes to spiders to jellyfish, from a young age we are taught to assess the risks in our environment whenever we head into the great outdoors.

Every now and then, we see news reports of people being taken by crocodiles in the north. Being a southerner, thankfully they are not part of my world, but I often wonder what risk assessment was undertaken by that individual prior to fishing or swimming or whatever other activity they were doing prior to becoming lunch for a hungry crocodile?

For those of you not familiar with these monsters, they tend to be ambush hunters, lying in wait until something appears in their range and then …. SNAP! So surely one would think that if you saw one of these creatures in the water where you were headed, your risk mitigation strategies would be fairly strict. However, what if someone just told you that there might be a croc in the water? Would that change your thinking? Would you be happy swimming in an area where you might get eaten or is it only where you know you are pretty well going to be eaten that you totally eliminate the risk and stay onshore?

So what does this have to do with risks in the workplace you say??

Good question?

In Fire Services, we are great at managing the risks that we see in front of us. We constantly assess the state of a building, the intensity of the flames, the structural integrity of a recently crashed car…. the list is pretty well endless. By and large its a risk that’s managed well, as evidenced by the relatively minuscule occurrence of injuries in the workplace.

Is this just the crocodile that we can see though?

What if I told you, that firefighters still die on the job and the single biggest cause has nothing to do with the crocodile that we can see. The number one cause of morbidity and mortality in firefighters worldwide is heart attacks, followed closely by manual handling / slips and falls. No-one wants to die at work, or sustain a major injury, yet it happens consistently and this risk doesn’t seem to be as well regarded as the big red flames in front of us.

Is this the crocodile underwater thats lurking and waiting for us?

We know that heart attacks can by and large be prevented in the workplace. Through proper fitness and wellness programs, through good nutrition …. However, the research is telling us that we can do better, and the underlying triggers exist in the environment — if only we had the tools and the impetus to look for them:

  • Blood thickens: As we get hot, we dehydrate and our blood gets thicker. This means we cannot effectively move blood to the skin for cooling, or to provide oxygen and fuel to the working muscles. Think about trying to pump concrete through a straw. This results in heart rates and systolic blood pressure rising while our diastolic pressure drops.
  • Gait variability increases: As we get hot and tired we start to trip over our feet. This is a neuromuscular response to increasing body temperatures.
  • Strength decreases: As our muscles start to be starved of oxygen and fuel, they start to weaken making every task harder.
  • Cognition drops: We start to lose our ability to make critical decisions. Our reaction time decreases and our working memory declines.
  • Immune and inflammatory activity increases: We see an immune response which can lead to heart attacks and even changes to our long term ability to manage stress.

I challenge the safety world to start looking not at the crocodile in the water, but evaluating the risks below the surface as those are the ones that always seem to get you!

Exploring the Risk Management Continuum. Leg 1: Equipment

In a world defined by rapid technological advancement, is it time we start to ask the question, are all changes to our equipment good ones, particularly when they are used as a way of mitigating hazards at work, without due consideration of the other legs of the Risk Management Continuum?

Well thought out, well planned equipment purchases make our jobs easier, safer, and in some cases possible as without it, some environments may be too dangerous to otherwise work there. However, in my experience many procurement decisions around equipment are made in order to eliminate a hazard, sometimes creating new unexpected hazards, or in some cases creating hazards where there previously were none. When decisions on equipment are made without considering the impact on Policy, Environment and Human Factors are we actually making our workplaces safer?

I offer the following example from my time in the fire service, along with the knock-on effects in each of the other legs of the Risk Management Continuum ….

Moisture Barrier in Structural Firefighting PPE

Hazard to be eliminated: Steam burns from using water in a confined space. Chemical attack on skin.

Evidence/Likelihood of Steam burns? Unclear.

Hazard created: Increased risk of heat strain in firefighters during their work.

Risk created: Heat related injuries and fatalities such as Heart Attacks and poor decision making.

Knock-on considerations:

  • Environment: Many organisations require their firefighters to wear structural PPE to all events including crash rescue. Are we now making their work harder by asking them to wear clothes that are hotter?

Result: Working is now hotter when wearing structural firefighting PPE, thus increasing the risk of fatigue and injury.

Considerations: Can individuals safely continue to work at the rate required to quickly resolve incidents (human)? Do policies need to change to reflect the new reality (policy)?

  • Human: Are firefighters happy to wear this new PPE? By reducing the evaporative capacity of firefighters to assist them with cooling, they feel hotter and fatigue quicker.

Result: Many firefighters, if given the option, will wear older gear to stay cooler.

Considerations: Do organisations mandate wearing of new PPE (policy)? Can they afford to replace all gear at once to ensure compliance or just hope that firefighters do the right thing (human).

  • Policy: Many organisations still mandate the wearing of structural PPE to all emergency responses citing reasons such as “cars catch fire following a crash so we need to be prepared”. Is this still a valid reason with modern cars? Do they explode like in the movies or can a single operator with a line of hose cover what will likely be a small fire rather than a raging inferno?

Result: Standard Operating Procedures need to be reflective of modern technology advancements.

Considerations: Will individual officers allow their firefighters to “dress down” where appropriate (human)? Can we “teach old dogs new tricks?” Can we change policies to better reflect the new reality (policy)?

Of course this is only one example, in one industry, of where equipment procurement decisions must be made with due consideration of the other legs of the Risk Management Continuum in order to deliver value for money, ensure compliance and ultimately improve safety.

How safe is safe for workers in extreme environments?

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IMG_0375Picture this.

Its 40 degrees outside.

The sun is baking down.

For the umpteenth time today, the bells ring and its time to race off to deal with latest crisis the general public is throwing at you. You are hot, you are tired and faced with the likelihood of a structure burning out of control, you brace yourself for the inevitable frenzy of activity that will leave you hot, sweaty and exhausted. Yet you pick yourself up, dress for battle in gear closely resembling a doona, and give it everything you have.

Why? Because thats what you are paid to do and the public expect nothing less of you.

When we speak of extreme working environments, the image of a firefighter striding fearlessly into a blazing inferno is one of the first things that comes to mind. They operate in environments where room temperatures can be in excess of 500 degrees, combined with radiant heat forcing them to the floor, crawling to ensure that no-one is trapped inside, fighting for their very lives.

While this may seem extreme, for the men and women on the front lines, this can be their daily reality.

However, while they work to keep us safe, are we doing everything we can to protect them?

Are they wearing the best gear that money can buy? Or just the best that a poorly devised budget can stretch too?

Are our operating procedures constantly evolving as technology progresses, or are we stuck in a cycle of “we’ve always done it this way?

And critically, when they leave our sight, disappearing into that smoke-logged building, how are we ensuring that they are safe?

The modern house reaches flashover (the time when the environment becomes untenable) in less than 10 minutes, compared to up to an hour in the past, when our world wasn’t built of plastics and other fuels. This means our firefighters are working in far more extreme environments than ever before. However, are fire services doing everything they can to make sure that the people working in those environments are as safe as possible, or are we working on a principal that “nothing bad has happened yet so its all good?”

In the modern world, where technology plays such a critical role in everything we do, firefighting still relies on the practices of the past. We still send people into extreme environments, knowing nothing about their physiology, how their body is reacting to the increasing heart rates, changes to blood pressure etc that comes with making people hot.

The consequences of guessing, not knowing?

High body temperatures result in increased heart rates (sometimes close to the maximum possible for an individuals heart to sustain), increased gait variability (or the ability to walk safely on uneven surfaces), decreased cognitive ability (the ability to see danger and react!) and changes to an individuals blood (thicker and less able to deliver oxygen to the working muscles or blood to the skin to keep us cool).

What if I told you there was a better way? That maybe, just maybe we could devise technology that allows us to see an individual for what they are? A machine, with various parts that can easily fail if we ask too much of it!

I say yes! We can do better! The question is, do we want to?