Can biomechanics research reduce firefighter injuries?

In a groundbreaking study, UCRISE researchers are applying the principles of biomechanics, supported by advanced monitoring technology, to investigating the causes of firefighter muscle and joint injuries.

Study participant Lloyd O’Keefe is wired up with sensors as he prepares to jump in his regular firefighting boots, while supporting weight on his back.

The project was initiated by recent UCRISE PhD graduate and experienced firefighter, Dr Anthony Walker, who has long been concerned about the injuries sustained by his colleagues and what might be done to reduce them.

By reviewing compensation claim data over the last ten years, Anthony found that a staggering 75% of injuries occurred in the lower body, for example, in the lower back, hip, knee, and ankle. This is in contrast to injuries commonly suffered in other emergency services, such as the ambulance, and may be partly due to the solid construction of firefighter boots.

Clearly, the boots do need to be solid to prevent injury to the foot, due to nails and other hazards, however, having a steel plate in the sole, even more steel for toe protection, and having a rigid shaft prevents flexion and locks the ankle in place.

Project leader and UCRISE biomechanics researcher, Dr Wayne Spratford, explains the consequences of this.

“One function of an ankle, with its wide range of motion, is to act as a shock absorber. For example, when you land on your feet they ideally should plantar flex (toes striking the ground first) to soak up the force. But if you land flat-footed, the shock waves travel along the leg and can cause injury further up. This is what skiers often experience too, due to ski boot construction.”

The study is being conducted by UCRISE biomechanics honours student Vy Vu, under the supervision of Wayne and Anthony.

Over a two-week period, more than twenty firefighters will be tested in the new state-of-the-art Sports Tek lab at UCRISE. They will be fitted with sensors and monitored by the Vicon motion capture system as they carry out a range of typical activities, including jumping.

This will provide force and kinematic (movement) data, which will allow the stresses acting on joints to be calculated.

Each participant will be tested under two conditions: wearing the current, standard issue, constrained firefighter’s boot and wearing a sand shoe (which would allow complete freedom of ankle movement).

“We’re not sure of the final outcome,” explains Anthony. “At this stage we’re just gathering data but it might result in further improvements in boot design. These days there are boots starting to use lightweight Kevlar instead of steel in the base, and strong plastic for toe protection, which is a good start.”

A number of boot manufacturers have already expressed interest in the project and its capacity to provide a more scientific basis for their boot design.

“We might also look at whether the Australian Standard needs changing because the boots that seem to be causing injury are currently compliant with the standard. If they’re hurting people, maybe they shouldn’t be,” Anthony said.

And for honours student Vy?

“I never expected this and the project is like a dream come true. I’m fascinated by analysing human movement, especially in how it relates to the general population, and this gives me the chance to research an issue that could make a real difference to people. It’s totally inspiring.”

Future work by the research team aims to look at extending this type of research to other emergency services, such as the police and ambulance, to see how their injury profile might also be reduced.

This project is being conducted by UCRISE in partnership with ACT Fire & Rescue and the Justice and Community Safety Directorate Work Health and Safety Team and their assistance is appreciated.

For further information, please contact the project team via the email links below:

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