Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) do a valuable job for society. They are often the first responders to a medical incident and their actions can save lives and make life better for everyone. But does this come at a cost to the individuals that serve as EMTs and in addition, to relatively poor pay, are they risking their lives on a daily basis to ensure the safety of others?
The actual tasks that EMTs do are not particularly dangerous, except perhaps, for heavy lifting. However, EMTs do face real danger on the job; they are often assaulted by patients and may be exposed to dangerous situations or diseases by the very nature of the work. They are also, sadly, more likely to commit suicide than people in other professions.
Being an EMT can be exciting and rewarding, but there are also some challenges to be aware of. Here’s what you need to know.
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Is EMT A Dangerous Job?
Working as an EMT is, in theory, no more dangerous than working in any other job with periods of strenuous exertion.
EMTs need to be able to carry and move patients and this is hard physical labor and comes with the associated risk of such labor, but it seems unlikely that, for example, an EMT’s labor is more physically perilous than that of a bricklayer, who will also carry heavy loads for much of their day.
But, under the surface, the EMT faces a far greater array of risks than our bricklayer does on a day-to-day basis and that’s less to do with the physical duties of an EMT but rather the situations that they are called upon to respond to.
5 Challenges of Being an EMT
There are five major challenges that confront the health and safety of EMTs (and Paramedics) when compared to other professions:
1 – Assault. A report for the US Department of Labor showed that those in healthcare and social welfare professions are 5 times as likely to be assaulted as people in any other profession!
For EMTs, the risks of assault can come from the patients themselves who may, either accidentally or deliberately, strikeout when being treated or because they are under the influence of substances. It’s also possible for relatives and other people to assault the EMT while they try to carry out their work, sometimes out of concern for the injured or sick party, and sometimes for the opposite reason.
2 – Back problems. This should come as no surprise, in any occupation that involves a lot of heavy lifting there are going to be risks to people’s backs.
Every EMT will spend a lot of time kneeling, bending, and stretching in addition to lifting and moving patients. Every year, about 8% of first responders are absent from work due to back injuries and EMS workers, in particular, have a 1 in 8 chance of a back injury on an annual basis.
3-- Diseases. This comes in the form of “blood-borne pathogens”, “airborne pathogens” and other routes of transmission of infectious diseases.
If you’re treating injured people, you’re going to be exposed to their blood, saliva, coughs, sneezes, and other bodily fluids. Even with extreme caution and good surgical practice – it’s possible that their blood might end up in you.
This means you might be at risk of anything from Hepatitis to AIDS to COVID. You can reduce this risk by wearing gloves, goggles, face masks, etc. but you can’t completely eliminate it.
4 – Loss of hearing. You may not see the connection between EMT work and hearing loss immediately, but, in fact, EMTs and paramedics are at a very high risk of hearing damage in their work.
This is due to the exposure to sirens, air horns, and power tools that might be required to break into an enclosed space and help rescue an individual. This is very frustrating too because, for first responders, it’s an essential part of the role to be able to hear cries for help, communicate effectively and hear warning sounds such as the crumbling of a supporting wall.
Though there are ways to protect your hearing and they should be used.
5 – Stress. Is being an EMT stressful? Working as an EMT is stressful.
Not only are the four issues above stressful, but so is dealing with life and death situations. Making decisions that might save or destroy a life in an instant is stressful. Shift work leads to poor sleep patterns which are stressful. Poor management, which is very common for EMTs, is stressful. And so on.
This is really the biggest concern for all first responders. It can sneak up on you and affect all parts of your life. PTSD is common for emergency professionals and EMTs are not immune to this. Mental health needs to be taken seriously in these types of careers.
This video goes more into the pros and cons of being an EMT:
5 Common EMT Injuries
So, how do these risks translate when it comes to the injuries that EMTs suffer in the field?
Well, according to the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH), there are 5 common injuries suffered while working in EMT-related professions:
1 – Bodily motion injuries. This includes back problems but relates to all injuries that involve too much stress placed on the body when moving, lifting, twisting, etc.
Nearly a third of all EMT injuries are of this kind and the good news is that you can reduce the odds of such an injury by eating properly, exercising regularly, and always using proper body mechanics (whenever possible) when it comes to lifting, etc. It is also worth noting that these injuries become more common with age and EMTs over 40 are much more likely to injure themselves like this than their younger peers.
2 – Harmful substance issues. Nearly a quarter of all injuries to EMT workers come from harmful substances and, in particular, exposure to those blood-borne pathogens.
The most common of these injuries is an accidental needle stick. That might sound trivial, but if your patient has HIV it can lead to weeks of trauma and stress waiting to learn if you have infected yourself. It is worth noting that while “accidents happen” many of these accidents happen because the EMT is not following the appropriate safety protocol.
If you want to avoid these injuries, they are largely preventable by ensuring that you use PPE and dispose of needles, etc. safely.
3 – Falling, slipping, and tripping. An incredible 16% of all accidents that EMTs are involved in are slips, trips, and falls.
These tend to be a combination of hurrying to get the job done and working in extreme conditions (including on wet surfaces). If you want to reduce the chance of injuries like this, it is worthwhile assessing the path you will take to carry patients before you begin carrying them and you should always wear non-slip and durable shoes to give you the best purchase on surfaces possible.
4 – Motor vehicle accidents. They only account for 8% of accidents EMTs experience, but they account for the majority of fatalities in EMT workers.
The rate of injury for an EMT worker in motor vehicle accidents is twenty times higher than in any other job! There is a lot of research being conducted on this problem. And better driver training programs are being developed to try and reduce these issues.
However, it’s worth noting that just wearing your seat belt can dramatically reduce crash injuries and that 84% of injured EMT workers aren’t wearing a seat belt when they crash.
5 – Violence-related injury. This is incredible, but two-thirds of EMT workers say that they are verbally abused in the course of a year and an incredible 44% are assaulted physically each year. And 80% of all EMTs say that they’ve been assaulted each year.
However, it’s worth noting that many EMTs fail to report violence when it occurs, which makes it harder to address this problem than it should be. It is certain that if EMTs were better trained, they could dramatically reduce the odds of being assaulted and research is being conducted to try and make this possible.
The Rewards of Being an EMT
If we haven’t put you off becoming an EMT with that gloomy data set, we should note that there are real benefits to this work too:
- Job satisfaction – helping people is a really nice thing to do and this job lets you help a lot of people, and that means you will feel great about what you do.
- Job opportunities – if you develop your career beyond being a basic EMT then you will find plenty of career opportunities and a high-level of job stability in the future.
- It’s never boring – this isn’t a job where you do the same thing all day long over and over again, you will see thousands of unique situations in a career as an EMT, two days are never the same.
- See the world – you’ll spend time traveling around areas you might never have seen and one of the perks of being an EMT is that you may be able to help with staffing at big events like sporting occasions or music concerts and see them for free!