If data gathered by Canada's Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is anything to go by, paramedics experience more job-related injuries than workers in any other sector. This is mostly due to all the heavy patient-lifting that they have to do. According to research conducted by the University of Waterloo, however, there's a straightforward way of bringing those injury rates down by up to 78 percent: equip paramedics with powered stretchers.

"A manual stretcher alone can weigh nearly 100 pounds [45 kg]," says Steven Fischer, assistant professor of kinesiology at Waterloo. "Add on a 200-pound [91-kg] patient and a paramedic team is handling 300 pounds [136 kg] every time they raise, lower, lift or load the stretcher. We estimate that a paramedic is lifting more than 1,700 pounds [771 kg] per shift on average, approximately the same weight as moving all of the furniture in a one-bedroom apartment."

For the study, the scientists compared stretcher-related paramedic injury rates at Niagara Emergency Medical Service and Hamilton Paramedic Service. Niagara had recently switched to stretchers with a battery-powered hydraulic system and an assisted ambulance-loading feature, whereas Hamilton still used manual stretchers.

A year after introducing the powered stretchers, Niagara's injury rate dropped from 20 injuries per 100 workers per year, to just 4.3. Over the same time period, Hamilton's rate increased from 17.9 injuries per 100 workers, to 24.6.

Unfortunately, however, the powered stretchers are expensive. Each one costs about US$40,000, plus they're not available in all areas. Nevertheless, it is believed that throughout the 7-year service life of one of the units, it would more than pay for itself in the reduction of injury-related compensation costs.

A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Applied Ergonomics.