Preventing Firefighter Injuries and Casualties by Examining the Culture of Safety
October 9, 2012
Drexel University was awarded a three-year, $1 million fire prevention and safety grant last month to develop tools to improve on-the-job safety for firefighters.
The award, from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), builds on an existing FEMA-funded project at Drexel (FIRST) researching and developing the components of a national firefighter non-fatal injury data system (publichealth.drexel.edu/first). Both efforts are led by Dr. Jennifer A. Taylor, an assistant professor in Drexel’s School of Public Health.
With the new award, Taylor and collaborators will develop a survey to measure the safety climate – the measurable aspect of an organization’s or group’s attitudes toward safe behavior or “culture of safety”– for use in fire departments and by fire safety researchers.
“When there is a positive safety climate in a fire house, that means the leadership puts a high value on being safe. That value gets out to the frontline workers who change their behaviors to safe ones,” Taylor said.
According to Taylor, even the simplest steps to protect safety, such as buckling seatbelts, can be indicators of the value placed on safety. “Firefighters already put a high value on being ‘first in’ – the first on the scene to respond to an emergency. So if a fire chief says, ‘You won’t leave the fire house without buckling your seatbelt,’ that shows the value placed on safety.”
Conversely, “if they don’t buckle up, there will be other things they do that shortcut safety and increase the risk of preventable harm.”
That general principle has been demonstrated in more than 200 studies across a multitude of countries and industries that have concluded that safety climate is a robust predictor of safety outcomes, such as injuries. It’s valuable for an organization to know how strong its culture of safety is, in order to help improve it.
Yet the safety climate of fire departments is largely unmeasured.
After developing the survey of safety climate tailored especially for use in fire safety research, Taylor’s team will make the survey freely available to fire departments nationwide. Researchers will then be able to use the survey to measure a department’s safety climate both before and after implementing safety-related interventions, to determine whether an effort to improve safety culture has been effective.
Safety culture among firefighters has been noted as a major gap in firefighter safety knowledge by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). There are 70-80 firefighter deaths in the line of duty each year, according to NFFF. Nonfatal injuries among the nation’s 1.2 million firefighters are much more common, with estimates numbering in tens of thousands, though the exact number is unknown.
“The topic of culture holds special significance to NFFF,” said Chief Ron Siarnicki, NFFF’s executive director. “In March 2004, we convened over 200 people at our National Fire Fighter Life Safety Summit to discuss line of duty death prevention. From this unprecedented discussion, 16 initiatives emerged. The most fundamental issue that was agreed upon by the Summit participants was the need for the fire service in the United States to change the culture of accepting the loss of firefighters as a normal way of doing business. Initiative #1 was: ‘Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.’ Therefore, Drexel’s grant, which will make it possible to measure safety climate in the fire service, is a natural extension of that commitment we made in 2004.”
Taylor’s research team will conduct focus groups and individual interviews with firefighters to rigorously develop survey items specific to the firefighting industry. The resulting survey will be administered to a geographically stratified random sample of U.S. fire departments. The survey results will be examined for the strength of their association with firefighter injuries.
In addition to Taylor, co-investigators include national and international scholars. The qualitative phase of the study will be guided by Drexel’s Dr. Lisa Bowleg, an associate professor in the School of Public Health who is an internationally recognized qualitative and mixed methods researcher. World-renowned safety climate expert Dr. Dov Zohar will advise the survey development. Zohar, a professor of Behavioral Sciences and Management in the department of Industrial Engineering & Management at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, developed the term “safety climate” in 1980 and has inspired the science behind it for over 30 years.
The project will be guided by academic and community partners including an advisory council comprising career and volunteer fire service leaders representing NFFF, the International Association of Fire Fighters, National Volunteer Fire Council, International Association of Fire Chiefs, FireRescue Magazine and The Secret List, who will advise the project team regarding research site recruitment, survey item development, and dissemination of the project results and survey.
Taylor, who leads this project, is an injury prevention and control researcher who investigates the relationship between organizational climate and injuries in healthcare settings and in the fire service. Taylor’s other firefighter research grants include an NIOSH RO3 award in narrative text mining, and a contract from the International Association of Fire Chiefs to analyze the National Fire Fighter Near Miss Reporting System. Taylor received her doctoral degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management. She obtained her master’s of Public Health degree in Health Services from the Boston University School of Public Health.