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OSHA ponders new standard for emergency responders

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A potential new standard for emergency responders from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration could force many small emergency services organizations to shut down and, in a controversial move, ban installation of fire poles at new fire stations if adopted, according to stakeholders.

OSHA has asked the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health for recommendations for a proposed emergency responder preparedness program standard, and the committee's Emergency Response and Preparedness Subcommittee has been tasked with drafting the standard.

The draft proposal outlines several requirements designed to identify and address workplace health and safety hazards for these organizations and their employees.

For example, it would require baseline and annual medical evaluations for firefighters and other first responders, including a medical history, a physical exam and laboratory tests required to detect physical or medical conditions that could adversely affect the responder's ability to safely perform essential job functions. In 2014, a total of 64 firefighters died while on duty in the United States, with sudden cardiac death accounting for 56% of those deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

However, the current proposal does not address the key question of who must pay for these medical evaluations, and the cost of compliance would significantly strain the resources of state and local emergency services organizations, experts say.

Phil Stittleburg, chief of the LaFarge Fire Department in Wisconsin, a volunteer department that services a rural community with an annual budget of about $65,000, said a requirement to conduct annual physicals would force him into making difficult decisions about paying for these physicals versus replacing critical safety equipment such as helmets at the recommended time intervals.

“Cost certainly is an issue, and there's no doubt about it,” he told the subcommittee at a hearing in Washington last week.

The draft standard would also require new emergency service organization facilities to utilize stairs or slides to provide rapid access to a lower level, barring the building of new poles at these facilities two years after a final rule is published — a controversial provision aimed at addressing a source of serious injuries and even fatalities for firefighters. In April 2012, for example, an Alameda County, California, Fire Department fireman fractured his left leg when he landed at the base of the fire pole, allegedly with his legs in the wrong position, according to OSHA.

“OSHA recognizes that there are a lot of injuries from people sliding down poles and hitting the bottom too hard, and one way of reducing those injuries is to eliminate the installation of new poles and instead provide stairs or slides,” said Bill Hamilton, a fire protection engineer in the OSHA Directorate of Standards and Guidance's Office of Safety Systems in Washington.

However, the poles are a cherished part of firehouse tradition, which could trigger a backlash against the entire proposal, according to some stakeholders.

“This is very clear regulatory language prohibiting something that is ingrained in the tradition of the fire service,” said Kenneth Willette, division manager with the National Fire Protection Association's Public Fire Protection Division in Quincy, Massachusetts. “While there's some regulatory benefit to including it, it could be a potential lightning rod that might create an obstacle for the intent of this work.”

The subcommittee opted to seek out specific information about the number of injuries and fatalities sustained by emergency responders using the poles compared with stairs and slides before making a final recommendation.