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National Police Week and NIOSH’s Work in Officer Safety

Posted on by Hope M. Tiesman, PhD; Jeff Rojek, PhD; Hongwei Hsiao, PhD; Claire Caruso, PhD

Peace Officers Memorial Day and National Police Week are observances that pay tribute to local, state, and Federal officers who have died or been disabled in the line of duty.  The Peace Officers Memorial Day occurs annually on May 15 which was designated by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.  National Police Week is the calendar week in which May 15 falls, and is an emotional time of recognition and remembrance for family and friends of fallen officers.  National Police Week and the Peace Officers Memorial Day draw nearly 40,000 law enforcement officers and their families to Washington, D.C. every year.

While the purpose of National Police Week is to pay tribute to fallen officers, it is also a time to highlight the physical and emotional struggles faced by today’s officers and their families. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the federal agency charged with conducting research to improve working conditions and prevent work-related injury and illness among U.S. workers and this mission extends to police officers.  Here, we highlight past, present, and future research into the prevention and reduction of officer injuries.

Motor-Vehicle Death and Injury

Motor-vehicle related events including crashes and being struck by a vehicle are leading causes of duty-related death among officers, yet research into these events has lagged. To further understand motor-vehicle operations and crashes among officers, NIOSH sponsored a statewide survey in 2011 which included a random sample of 60 agencies and 1,500 sworn officers[i].  Officers were asked about motor-vehicle related policies, training, and safety behaviors.  Based on the findings, several recommendations were developed.  Regarding motor-vehicle training, agencies and law enforcement leaders could consider implementing policies to ensure more regular motor-vehicle training.  This includes routine in-service training, as the survey revealed training beyond the academy is rare. Training beyond that of the academy is rare.  Regarding motor-vehicle policies, agencies could consider implementing policies that restrict the use of cell phones while officers are driving, as well as speed restriction policies when officers are activating lights and sirens.  Based on the best available data, these policies may reduce an officer’s risk of a motor-vehicle crash while responding to active calls.  Regarding safety behaviors, the importance of wearing seatbelts should be stressed and encouraged by leadership, command staff, and field training officers. Agencies should also encourage officers to wear high-visibility apparel whenever they work in the vicinity of moving vehicles.  Just over 80% of officers reported wearing a seatbelt while driving a patrol car and between 4%-10% reported regularly wearing reflective gear outside of their patrol car. An analysis of law enforcement vehicle crashes over a 10 year period found that seatbelt use was lower in crashes that resulted in a fatality relative to other crashes.[ii]

This study, as well as others, identified that training, policy, and the use of safety devices such as seatbelts all play a role in the prevention of motor-vehicle crashes. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) developed a comprehensive crash prevention program after three LVMPD officers died in motor-vehicle crashes in six months.  This program included stringent driving policy changes, improved and more frequent driver training, and a public health campaign which was disseminated using posters and stickers to encourage officers to ‘belt up’.  Preliminary findings from a scientific evaluation of this program performed by NIOSH and partially funded by the National Institute for Justice (NIJ) showed decreases in the agency’s motor-vehicle crash and injury rates after the program was implemented.  The program was also associated with an increase in reported seatbelt usage among officers.  Finally, three years after program implementation, the reduction in motor-vehicle injuries and associated lost duty days resulted in a potential cost savings of $1.1 million dollars.  These changes were not seen in two similar-sized agencies that served as control agencies during the same time period.  The LVMPD has demonstrated that simple and cost-effective changes to training, policy, and behavior can lead to large impacts.

An average of two officers a month are killed in motor-vehicle crashes, yet detailed information on the causes and risk factors for these deaths rarely make it beyond the agency. This information is vital to aid in the development of evidence based prevention programs and other avenues for intervention and could be shared with stakeholders, researchers, and the law enforcement community.  NIOSH currently implements two fatality investigation programs: the Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) and Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Prevention Programs (FFFIPP).  Under these programs, experienced investigators examine occupational fatalities with the goal of identifying high risk work situations, formulating prevention strategies, and disseminating these strategies.  Investigations examine the entire fatality event, considering factors and circumstances related to the injury source, worker, and work environment.

In 2014, the NIOSH Fatality Investigations Team under partial funding from the NIJ started investigating law enforcement officer deaths due to motor vehicle crashes or from being struck-by a vehicle while working outside of patrol cars. The investigative findings are incorporated into a report that includes a description of the event, factors contributing to the event, and recommendations. Reports are available online for easy access by police departments, officer organizations, and safety and health researchers.  To date, five investigations have been initiated in a range of states and at different sized agencies.  Reports will be available on the NIOSH LEO Motor Vehicle Safety webpage (www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/leo/).

Another current research project will establish an anthropometric database of U.S. law enforcement officers that measures their variations in body sizes and shapes by gender, race, and age. While motor vehicle and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) industries have taken steps to use body size and shape for general vehicle and PPE applications, the data are not suitable for patrol vehicles or law enforcement PPE such as body armor. Data from 400 officers showed that on average, male officers are 12.5 kg heavier than average male civilians.  A recent NIOSH pilot study showed that officers have statistically significant differences in 10 compatible body dimensions compared to forty-year old data from the National Bureau of Standards.  This demonstrates that more up-to-date information on U.S. law enforcement officers’ body shapes and sizes is needed.  The NIOSH database will be used to develop engineering enhancements of law enforcement vests, vehicle cabs, seats, and seatbelts, as well as in-car communication systems. Improved vehicle and body armor designs may help to enhance officer safety and increase post-crash survivability.  Data collection is anticipated to begin in August 2017.

Sleep and Shift Work

Another occupational hazard for officers is sleep deprivation, scheduling conflicts, shift work, and sleep schedules. In 2015, three expert panels concluded most adults need 7 or more hours of sleep each day for optimal health and safety.[iii] [iv] [v]Yet, 38% of those employed in a protective service occupation report sleeping six hours or less a day. [vi] Sleep impacts the workplace in many ways.  For example, people who only sleep 6-7 hours have crash rates that are 1.3 times higher than drivers who sleep for 7 hours or more and those who sleep less than 4 hours have crash rates 11.5 times higher.[vii]  Police officers who do not get enough good quality sleep are at risk for crashes due to drowsy driving, as well as other health effects.  To help reduce this risk and aid officers in improving their sleep quality and quantity, NIOSH is currently developing online training for law enforcement officers and their managers that will relay the risks associated with shift work, long work hours, and related sleep issues and give strategies to reduce those risks.

Non-fatal Injuries

While officer fatalities garner national attention, less consideration has been given to officer’s non-fatal injuries despite the fact that non-fatal injuries among this workforce is high and these injuries can lead to long-term disability, as well as early retirement. National estimates of non-fatal injuries among officers do not exist nor does detailed information on these events.  What limited research does exist on officers injuries is narrow scope, focusing on use of force events.  Research is needed to understand how non-fatal injuries occur, why they occur, and if there are specific policing strategies or tactics that increase or decrease the risk for an injury.  NIOSH is embarking on a new research project to add to this limited knowledge base by developing a survey and potentially interviewing officers who visited emergency departments for treatment of non-fatal on-duty injuries. This survey data would provide insight on common injuries and exposures and information on the circumstances and activities that increase the risk of injuries to officers.

Data collection would occur from the occupational supplement to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NIESS-Work) which draws from approximately 67 U.S. hospital emergency departments. Officers treated in the sampled hospitals over a three year period will be identified from the larger sample of patients with work-related injuries and exposures.  Telephone interviews would be used to collect information on the activity/task at the time of injury, hours worked, injury/exposure circumstances; training and certifications; years worked in law enforcement, equipment/devices used at the time of injury/exposure; and recovery.

Hearing Loss and Lead Exposure

Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers must train regularly with firearms and indoor firing ranges are often used because of their controlled conditions. Law enforcement officers may be exposed to high levels of lead and noise at indoor firing ranges. Impulse noise levels can reach in  excess of 170 dB SPL, far exceeding the 140 dB SPL occupational limits set by OSHA and NIOSH. Lead exposure occurs mainly through inhalation of lead fumes or ingestion (e.g., eating or drinking with contaminated hands). NIOSH published special guidelines for occupational firearms exposure in the NIOSH Alert: Preventing Occupational Exposures to Lead and Noise at Indoor Firing Ranges and in two Workplace Solutions documents targeting exposures at indoor and outdoor firing ranges.

Conclusion

Law enforcement work remains a dangerous occupation and there is data to suggest that it is becoming more dangerous. It is not surprising that officers face an increased risk for occupational motor-vehicle death given the time that officers spend in cars, the types of driving they do, and the various communication-related distractions in their vehicles.  It is also not a surprise that officers are at risk for other types of non-fatal injury given the situations they work in.  We may need to ask novel questions such as which policing procedures and strategies protect both officers and civilians.  Are these procedures evidence-based, or simply what is ‘hot’ in the law enforcement community or agendas from external stakeholders? How can occupational safety and health specialist’s work with criminologists and law enforcement leaders to make work safer for police?  As we think about police this week, we must consider the workplace in the overall health and safety of the men and women who choose to make law enforcement their profession. We must continue to address the very unique issues that officers face on a day-to-day basis with data driven approaches and programs.

Hope M. Tiesman, PhD, is a research epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research.

Jeff Rojek, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the Center for Law and  Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Hongwei Hsiao, PhD, is the Branch Chief for the Protective Technology Branch in NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research.

Claire Caruso, PhD, RN, FAA, is a research health scientist in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

 

References

[i] (Tiesman H & Heick RJ. 2014. Law enforcement officer motor vehicle safety: findings from a statewide survey. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, NIOSH, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2015-101)

[ii] Wolfe SE, Rojek J, Alpert GP, Tiesman HM, James SM. 2015. Characteristics of Officer-Involved Vehicle Collisions in California. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 38:458–477.

[iii] Mukherjee S, Patel SR, Kales SN, et al. 2015. An Official American Thoracic Society Statement: The Importance of Healthy Sleep. Recommendations and Future Priorities. Am J Respir Crit Care Med,191(12):1450-8.

[iv] Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. 2015. Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. J Clin Sleep Med;11(6):591–592.

[v] Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, Albert SA, et al. 2015. Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health 1:40–43.

[vi] (Luckhaupt SE, Tak S, Calvert GM. 2010. The prevalence of short sleep duration by industry and occupation in the National Health Interview Survey. SLEEP 33(2):149-159.

[vii] AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. 2016. Acute Sleep Deprivation and Risk of Motor Vehicle Crash Involvement.

Posted on by Hope M. Tiesman, PhD; Jeff Rojek, PhD; Hongwei Hsiao, PhD; Claire Caruso, PhD

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