A new study underway by the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) is looking at how fatigue plays a role in the health and safety of forest firefighters, which could have implications for other workplaces.
The study, which is being funded by the Ministry of Natural Resources, is being led by senior CROSH researchers Dr. Sandra Dorman and Dr. Céline Larivière, and associate professors in the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University. It’s been broken into two parts: one looks at the physiological and nutritional factors, while the other examines the psychological aspects impacting fatigue. Together, these elements are revealing some interesting facts about fatigue.
“We believe that fatigue causes injury,” said Dr. Sandra Dorman, the health and safety liaison at CROSH, and an associate professor in Laurentian University’s School of Human Kinetics.
“This is why it’s difficult to suss out fatigue: you could be physically fatigued because you’ve been working a very strenuous job, but you could also be mentally fatigued,” she added. “Maybe it wasn’t physically strenuous for 12 hours, but you’ve been doing it for so long you’re mentally fatigued.”
The goal is to find various levels of fatigue amongst workers and formulate a long-range plan for how to mitigate it.
Ayden Robertson, a graduate student with CROSH who’s focusing on the first part of the study, said that some research has compared the energy output of a forest firefighter to that of military personnel because of the labour-intense work and the heavy, 60-pound packs of equipment they carry.
“If you consider energy balance, forest fire operations have similar energy expenditure to military operations in terms of training,” said Robertson, a registered kinesiologist. “The result is a negative energy balance over a long period of time.”
His colleague, Zach McGillis, also a graduate student with CROSH, monitors study subjects for the psychological factors relating to fatigue, such as how long they sleep at night and how many times they wake up, compared with how tired they say they feel after resting. There can sometimes be a disconnect between the two.
“Typically people need to sleep more than five or six hours a night,” McGillis said. “But over a week or longer of five hours of sleep per night, a person can almost feel intoxicated. If your job requires you to have quick reaction time and sound problem-solving skills, this can pose a problem.”
A forest firefighter can work between eight and 16 hours a day, for up to 14 days at a time. But fire is unpredictable, so in a particularly dry summer, that can increase. Some firefighters are certified nationally, which means they can move between provinces as well.
Past studies have shown that this type of occupation can attract people who are adventurous and enjoy a challenge, Dorman said. The fast-paced culture can make it more difficult to recognize and report early signs of fatigue.
Robertson makes the comparison to an athlete who continues to play even when he’s sore: eventually he may tear a muscle and do more damage. In a forest fire, if fatigue diminishes a firefighter’s ability to be alert and responsive, people’s lives are at stake.
The researchers believe that mandatory training specific to the tasks they perform could benefit firefighters in the long run. For example, a training program was implemented for tree planters several years ago. After planters completed an activity-specific, eight-week training program, the rates of injury diminished, Dorman said.
Robertson points to a new term being floated around — occupational athlete — as being applicable to forest firefighters.
“They are in a very physically demanding occupation, and early findings from our research suggest the firefighters might benefit from a personalized approach to training, hydration, and nutrition program planning similar to what an athlete might follow,” he said.
With the summer firefighting season over, researchers have collected their data and expect to have a report complete this fall. The study is already gaining interest from other researchers in the field; in particular, with regard to the technology they used to engage participants.
While this study looked specifically at firefighters, the results are applicable to other industries as well.
Results from the study will be shared with the MNR and participating firefighters. The researchers hope the findings will start discussion with regard to fatigue and nutrition, and perhaps initiate guidelines that could be implemented by the MNR to help manage fatigue and prevent injury.
“We will give them lots of useful tips on lots of different areas,” Dorman said. “Even if they just make one change, to bring their fatigue down, enough to make a difference, that’s our goal,” Dorman said.