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Research finds cause of insomnia in firefighters

23 January 2020

LOWER BACK pain exacerbated by challenging working conditions could be a significant cause of insomnia among firefighters, new research has shown.

A new study by Qazvin University of Medical Sciences in Iran, published in IOSH's journal Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, examined the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in firefighters and its relationship with severity of insomnia.

MSDs are conditions that affect the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures, such as the discs in your back. They result from one or more of these tissues having to work harder than they’re designed to.

An estimated 498,000 workers in Great Britain in 2018/19 suffered from musculoskeletal disorders caused or made worse by their current or past work, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

As part of the study, 118 firefighters from the Qazvin region of Iran were asked to fill in a questionnaire. The study found that MSDs were present in over half of the participants (54.2%).

The most common complaint was lower back pain, which 30.5% of the participants experienced.

The study found that one in five firefighters had subclinical insomnia (20.3%) and 30% of them had moderate to severe insomnia. The severity of insomnia was significantly higher in participants with MSDs compared to those without MSDs.

Dr Zohreh Yazdi from Qazvin University of Medical Sciences said: “Heavy equipment, emergencies in the workplace and the unpredictable nature of firefighting can result in excessive energy consumption and awkward posture. Over time, this can lead to the development of a variety of musculoskeletal disorders.

“Firefighters generally work in shift work schedules that include long shifts during nights, weekends and holidays, so the prevalence of sleep disorders is also significantly higher in firefighters than the general population.

“Among different parts of the body, we found a significant association between back pain and severity of insomnia. Our results show that MSDs, especially around the lumbar region, are associated with the severity of insomnia in firefighters. We also observed that the prevalence of MSDs and insomnia was significantly higher in firefighters compared to similar studies in general population.

“This highlights the need for preventive activities to better protect the occupational health of this vulnerable group.”

Mary Ogungbeje, OSH Research Manager at IOSH, said: “Back pain is the most common type of musculoskeletal disorder and it can have a range of causes. With firefighters working unpredictable hours in challenging conditions, it is concerning to see from this research that many who are experiencing lower back pain made worse by their working environments are also seeing implications in their quality of sleep.

“IOSH promotes health protection, health promotion at work and the inclusion of rehabilitation policies as part of a wider employer strategy on employee health, safety and wellbeing. Our occupational health toolkit has sections on stress, musculoskeletal disorders and more, with information on rehabilitation for each.”