9 Practical Tips to Avoid Workplace Injury as a Law Enforcement Officer
When I hurt my back lifting a patient into an ambulance nearly 10 years ago I had no idea how much that moment would impact my life.
It seemed pretty straightforward. “Just RICE it,” they said (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). “You’re young, it will heal quick”, they said.
Boy were they wrong.
As a younger guy in his early twenties at the time, I was supposed to be in peak physical condition. Instead I was bedridden and in tremendous amounts of pain. It was so painful to even lay down that it took minutes for my lower back muscles to actually relax enough to even get in bed.
Eventually that back injury “healed,” but five years down the road, and loads of lost flexibility later, I injured it again….and again on the job.
But the human body is fragile.
So is the mind. I don’t care how tough you are. Odds are you will deal with an injury at some point in your career and it’s going to change your life. Many of you have already been there. Many of you are far worse off than I. A back injury pales in comparison to what many of you are dealing with. Nonetheless, it’s the reality we face. And it’s reality we have to continue on living with.
Robert Gary Lee once said, “wisdom is nothing more than healed pain.”
He was dead on.
I’ve since used my now chronic lower back injury to learn more not only about myself but also use it as an opportunity to educate others about doing things right the first time around.
I was young, and dumb, and strong, and reckless- and that recklessness got me hurt. There was no patient that was too heavy for me to lift…until there was.
And so having spent the better part of half my life as a first responder, as many of you also have, there are a few things I have learned along the way that may help those of you who are healing. Healing from the physical toll the job takes on you. Healing from the psychological impact that an injury has on your way of life.
And if you’re not healing at all, let this be a lesson. A lesson to protect yourself. You’ve got 30 years ahead of you- do it right the first time around.
Note: This post contains affiliate links.
9 Tips to Avoid Workplace Injury
1. Actually put into practice good scene safety
It is something that is drilled into your head from day one. But how many of us actually put into practice the things we learned in the academy? Whether its a “routine” traffic stop or something as simple as how you approach the scene of an MVC, little mistakes can have serious consequences. When you’re dispatched to an incident take a moment and actually play through the call in your head.
What resources are you going to need? What is the first thing you’re going to do when you get on scene?
Even in a profession that counts on split-second decisions, we still often have the luxury of time. Should I be going into this alone? Am I the best person equipped to do this job? Don’t let your ego get in the way.
Take your time and don’t forget to:
- Manipulate your vehicle to protect yourself and others.
- Think about entry and egress points ahead of time.
- Take into consideration how the weather may impact your duties.
- Consider calling out for additional resources ahead of time.
- Always wear the appropriate safety gear.
2. Make sleep a priority
We all know 8 hours of sleep a night is ideal. It is a luxury that most of us feel we don’t have. From swing shifts to alternating days and nights, getting adequate sleep is hard enough. Throw life in the mix and its all but impossible. That doesn’t make getting enough rest any less important. You just have to make it a priority.
Like working out and eating right, it is a lifestyle change. You have to commit to getting more sleep, even if it means streaming your favorite TV show later or missing Friday’s prime time football game. Drowsy driving accounts for 1 million car accidents each year. Regret is a powerful thing. Don’t regret being one of the yearly 500,000 injuries or 8,000 deaths because you got behind the wheel too tired.
3. Improve workplace ergonomics to prevent injury
Whether you spend all day behind a desk or countless hours on the road, you likely have formed some bad habits that make you more prone to injury. Some are beyond your control (like poor office seating that can contribute to back strain). Other habits are not.
Far too often we spend time after an injury thinking about what we could have done to prevent it in the first place. Then we learn our lesson. But by then its already too late. You need to learn to take a proactive approach to preventing injury. Its a mindset that you need to have.
If you sit all day: move.
If you move all day: get good footwear.
Seek out a better chair. Take productive breaks each hour. Hydrate. It is the simple stuff that matters.
4. Don’t skimp on boots
Police officer, firefighter, paramedic. Three different professions, all the same problem. If you’re on your feet all day and your footwear stinks you’re going to get hurt. Foot arch problems, knee pain, low back pain. They’re all connected and they affect all of us. Do not skimp on your footwear. If what you currently have is not working for you, and your department allows it, get something different ASAP.
I currently own a pair of 5.11 Tactical A.T.A.C. Storm Boots and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They’re waterproof, breathable so my foot doesn’t sweat all day and they meet ASTM standards (for safety-toe protection).
A number of my co-workers use and like Wolverine’s new Durashocks line. If you prefer a lower profile ankle boot as opposed to a full fledged 8″ tactical boot their CarbonMAX model is the way to go.
5. Get healthy
Chances are if you’re alive and reading this that you currently, or have in the past, struggled with weight issues. This isn’t to demean anyone- it is merely draw attention to the fact that public safety personnel are actually lagging behind the general US population in terms of fitness.
Recent NCBI and FBI studies highlight the fact that nearly 80% of all law enforcement employees are overweight or obese. An incredibly startling statistic when considering that our lives may actually depend on our physical ability to respond in high-stress situations.
Furthermore a related NCBI study directly links higher BMI’s with the frequency AND severity of injuries including but not limited to:
- lower extremity fractures
- joint dislocations
Surprise. The less healthy you are, the more prone you are to life altering injuries.
Start making wiser food choices. Work out regularly. Get better sleep. Lastly, look at ways to reduce or eliminate sources of stress in your life (stress causes your body to release cortisol which increases appetite and triggers salt/sugar cravings). If you or someone you know is not handling stress appropriately, please get help. There are numerous resources available:
6. Manage preexisting injuries appropriately
Part of avoiding workplace injury is dealing with past injuries.
If you’re currently injured make sure you allow yourself the appropriate amount of time to heal (this means actually listening to your doctor). Don’t return to work too early. You know your body best; don’t be afraid to ask for a light-duty assignment as employers are generally required to offer such a program for injuries sustained on the job.
Also consider investing in products that legitimately help protect prior injuries. I often use a back brace while at work that gives an additional layer of support when I lift heavy objects or patients. I don’t entirely buy into the whole compression/recovery aspect of the brace but I can actually feel the support the brace gives me and that is reason enough for me.
If you suffer from back pain or a chronic back injury I would advise looking into something that will protect you from further injury like the Tommie Copper Back Brace below (knee braces are also popular if you’re struggling with something to that effect).
You don’t have to go with Tommie Copper but if you do end up deciding on some sort of protective brace or compression sleeve LET has a reader-only discount code you can use on your purchase (TCLET2017 for 20% off).
7. Be visible
According to a study by the European Commission, you are 182% more likely to suffer a workplace injury at night than your day shift counterparts. And while there is insufficient data to directly correlate this to Law Enforcement, it seems reasonable to say these numbers are probably higher within the LEO community.
Wearing the appropriate reflective gear can help protect you and those around you. Don’t forget to put yours on each and every time you step out of your vehicle or you’re working the scene of an accident.
It may look tacky. You may be in a hurry. But it all serves a purpose.
Stock your vehicles (both department and personal) with flares and a flashlight with extra batteries. It is not often you need these items but you’ll be thankful they are there when you go to use them.
Consider purchasing a cheap, high-vis vest to throw in your trunk if it isn’t something your department already provides. You can’t always prevent stupid but you can do your best to make sure stupid sees you far ahead of time.
8. See something, say something
If you notice a broken piece of equipment, a potentially hazardous situation, or observe an unsafe work practice, be mature and say something. Sometimes preventing workplace injury isn’t about protecting yourself but also about protecting others. Is that not the reason we are in this profession anyways? Why wear a badge and gun if we are afraid to use our words to help others.
Lead by example. Report unsafe behavior through the appropriate channels. Identify and correct mistakes when you see them (both in yourself and others). Take ownership of issues and create a sense of personal responsibility to safety in the workplace.
9. Wear safety equipment properly
Far too many times I have heard co-workers complain about wearing anything from ballistic vests and helmets to ear protection and seat belts.
And far too many times have I heard someone express the regret of not having used it themselves in the aftermath of an accident or line of duty death of someone they know and love.
Sadly we live in a day and age where first responders themselves are often the target of violence under the pretense of someone needing help. If you’re department issues protective equipment, wear it. If they can’t afford newer gear, buy it yourself. Your life isn’t worth fretting over a $200 plate carrier and/or vest that could potentially save you from a lunatic…even if it is 107 degrees on a hot summer day…in your cruiser…when the AC is broken.
Safety equipment is there for a reason. And much like high-vis vests, the equipment is often aesthetically displeasing and cumbersome to carry or use.
But it’s there to save lives and prevent injury. You can’t get your vision back. Hearing loss is often permanent. Every day we work in environments that can contribute to the loss of both. Please consider wearing the proper protective gear.
Do you have personal experience with a workplace injury? Share yours in comments below and help our other readers create a culture of safety in their place of work.