Ergonomic Lessons Learned from Firefighters

If you have been following the news lately, you've likely heard about the recent fires across the West, including some in my home state of Colorado. Thankfully, none of my friends or family lost homes in the fires, in great part to the hard work and perseverance of the brave firefighters working night and day to keep homes and properties safe. Which begs the question, as a firefighter, how do you make sure that you can perform your job as efficiently and effectively as possible?

Recently, I was fortunate enough to tour the Riverview Fire Station in Riverview, New Brunswick, Canada. Most fire departments have probably not had an ergonomist come to evaluate their workstations. And yet, every day, firefighters use ergonomic principles that can be applied to any company:

1. Organization. When looking at a fire truck, you instantly notice all of its cabinets, boxes, and storage compartments. Time is of the essence when responding to a fire, so maintaining organization is vital. All tools and equipment must be placed in a specific location so the firefighter knows exactly where it is. Wasting time looking for something can be fatal.

In your workplace, make sure tools are always put back in their appropriate location and that the location is labeled. Time should not be spent searching for the right tool or, worse, using the wrong tool for the task because the correct one is missing. Can you imagine a firefighter using a garden hose to fight a fire because the regular hose wasn't put back on the truck?

2. Standardization. When firefighters respond to a structure fire, the last thing they need to worry about is what hose hooks up to which fire hydrant. To prevent this, hoses and hydrants are typically standardized, enabling the firefighter to hook up the right hose the first time.

At your facility, if you have four different fastener styles that require four different tools, the task time to complete the job is increased due to employees switching between tools. Standardize processes and products where feasible. This will reduce errors and increase task efficiency.

3. Flow. Looking at the lockers of gear, you'll notice each locker is organized exactly the same: The helmet is placed on the top rack, the fire coats hang in the middle, and the boots and pants are folded on the bottom. By maintaining consistent flow, firefighters are able to "gear up" in the most efficient way possible. As Bruce Lane of the Riverview Fire Department explained, "Firefighters have only one minute to get their gear on, fastened, and be ready to go." Not a single second is wasted, and not a single movement is without purpose.

Imagine the process of "putting on gear" as an assembly line: The pants go on first, then the boots and the coat, ending with a helmet on your head. Your workstations should be set up as such so as to not waste any time performing undue tasks (i.e., time rotating a part or reaching an extra 6 inche to retrieve a fastener).

The vast majority of us are lucky to work in environments where others' lives do not depend on our performance. What if the firefighters' tools or methods were flawed or just off on a given day?

What are some creative solutions your company has implemented to increase efficiency?

Jennie Gober, associate consultant and ergonomics engineer for Humantech, supports ergonomic project deployments, performs ergonomic risk assessments and on-site data collection, facilitates Humantech's RAPID® Team Events, redesigns workspaces, and delivers training sessions to client engineering and safety personnel.

Posted by Jennie Gober on Aug 13, 2012

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