Research news: Firefighter health

Staff & Wire Reports

File - In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, firefighters keep watch the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Researchers have expanded a health-monitoring study of wildland firefighters after a previous study found season-long health declines and deteriorating reaction times. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

File - In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, firefighters keep watch the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Researchers have expanded a health-monitoring study of wildland firefighters after a previous study found season-long health declines and deteriorating reaction times. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Study shows health, reaction-time declines in firefighters


Associated Press

Monday, September 3

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Randy Brooks’ son had a request three years ago: What could his dad do to make wildland firefighting safer?

To Brooks, a professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources who deals with wildland firefighting, it was more of a command.

His son, Bo Brooks, is a wildland firefighter who a few days earlier during that 2015 fire season fled a wall of flames that killed three of his fellow firefighters in eastern Washington.

The result of the conversation was an online survey that drew some 400 firefighters who mostly identified mental and physical fatigue as the primary cause of injuries to firefighters who are often confronted with a changing, dangerous environment.

But a self-selecting online survey is not necessarily representative of what’s happening in the field. So Randy Brooks decided to apply some science.

That led to an ongoing health-monitoring study involving wrist-worn motion monitors and body composition measurements that last year found health declines and deteriorating reaction times among firefighters as the season progressed.

“A lot of them face peer pressure to perform all the time,” Brooks said. “Others feel pressured to protect natural resources and structures at all costs.”

About 19,000 firefighters are currently in the field fighting nearly 40 large wildfires. Fourteen firefighters have died this year as wildfires have scorched about 3,500 square miles (9,000 square kilometers) and destroyed about 3,000 homes.

The study last year found firefighters lost muscle mass but gained fat based on body-composition testing before and after the season.

The firefighters also wore a wrist device called a Readiband from a company called Fatigue Science. The device keeps track of how many hours of sleep a person gets. Formulas developed by the U.S. military then calculate fatigue, based on a lack of sleep. That’s used to predict alertness and reaction times, which get worse as fatigue levels rise.

Firefighters in the field can get as little as six hours of sleep or less each night. The devices found that not only did reaction times falter as firefighters remained longer on a fire before getting a mandatory break, Brooks said, but firefighters also tended to take longer to recover as the season progressed. Sometimes, fatigue levels reached a level that suggested reaction times slowed down so much it took firefighters twice as long to react.

Brooks said his initial thoughts are that wildland firefighters might need better nutrition to stay fit and mentally sharp. But last year’s study had only nine firefighters. Brooks this year has expanded the study to 18 firefighters, 16 men and two women. They’re smokejumpers, meaning they parachute from airplanes to fight fires.

Brooks said that next year he hopes to have about 100 firefighters and include hotshot crews, a ground-based wildland firefighter that can, like smokejumpers, be deployed on a national basis.

Smokejumpers in the study often eat pre-made meals. Brooks wants to find out if maybe those meals are behind some of the puzzling results from last year’s study, such as a loss in muscle mass.

Hotshots, meanwhile, can return to a central spot where they get prepared food supplied by the U.S. Forest Service. That agency has done extensive research on what it takes to keep wildland firefighters fueled, and contractors who supply the meals must meet Forest Service nutritional guidelines.

Forest Service health experts have even followed firefighting crews to take blood samples to check glucose levels, which can indicate alertness.

Joe Domitrovich, an exercise physiologist with the Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Program in Missoula, Montana, said that experiment led the agency to change gears and recommend firefighters snack during their shifts to keep glucose levels up.

“It’s critical for cognitive function as well as physical movement,” he said.

The agency declined to comment on the University of Idaho study.

Brooks said at this point in his study there are more questions than answers. For example, one question is why so many firefighter deaths are due to falling branches or trees. The deaths of three of the 14 firefighters who died last year were due to what are called hazard trees. At least one firefighter was killed by a falling tree this year, and several more have been injured.

“What I’m trying to figure out is what is causing these accidents,” Brooks said.

A fair number of wildland firefighters also die of heart attacks during the season. Brooks said he wants to know if there’s something about the demanding seasonal job that puts wildland firefighters at greater risk of heart attacks.

Brooks wonders about the smoke firefighters inhale while doing physically demanding work. Many cities in the Pacific Northwest this year issued health alerts due to smoky air.

Ultimately, firefighters themselves might be part of the problem when it comes to calculating risks while protecting natural resources and property.

“There’s a little bit of a hero culture,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert. “There is a bonding with everybody. It can create a culture of where you kind of collectively ignore things you shouldn’t ignore.”

Graphic images on cigarette warnings stick with smokers

Ohio State University

Sept. 5, 2018

High-emotion photos aren’t easily forgotten, study finds

COLUMBUS, Ohio – If you want smokers to remember cigarette-warning labels, include a graphic image of the results of long-term smoking, a new study suggests.

A vivid image – such as a picture of a nicotine addict smoking through a surgical hole in his throat – packs an emotional punch for smokers, the researchers found.

Such images are shocking enough that smokers who viewed them actually remembered less of the associated text warning immediately afterward than did those who viewed warnings with only text or a much milder photo.

But six weeks later, fewer smokers who saw the graphic image had forgotten the warnings, compared to those who received the other messages.

“The high-emotion image sticks with smokers longer and we see less decline in what they remember about the warnings,” said Ellen Peters, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

Even more importantly, the study showed smokers who had stronger emotional reactions to the graphic warnings reported higher risk perceptions of smoking six weeks later and had greater intentions of quitting.

“Warnings with graphic images are the best way to convey the negative health consequences of smoking in a meaningful way,” Peters said.

The study appears online in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine and will be published in a future print edition.

The study involved 1,932 people who participated in two separate internet surveys. The studies included a nationally representative sample of adult smokers, a sample of Appalachian adult smokers, and a national sample of teens who were smokers or who were at high risk of taking up smoking.

All of the smokers participated online. Each participant was shown the same cigarette warning labels on their computer four times: on the first day of the study, twice after one week, and then a fourth time after either two weeks or six weeks.

Each smoker received one of nine text warnings (for example, “Cigarettes are addictive” or “Smoking can kill you”).

Some received only the text. Others saw the text paired with an image that earlier tests showed provoked little emotion (such as hands in chains reaching for cigarettes). A third group saw an image that earlier tests showed triggered strong emotions, such as the man smoking through the hole in his throat. (The hole is called a tracheostomy and may be necessary because of some smoking-related cancers.)

Results showed that smokers who viewed the low-emotion or text-only messages could recall about 30 percent of what the warnings said if they were asked immediately following the study.

But if they were asked after six weeks, warning recall dropped by nearly half for those who saw the low-emotion image and by one-third if they saw the text-only message.

People who saw the highly graphic image remembered slightly fewer of the messages (26 percent) immediately after the study was completed. However, after six weeks, there was a drop-off of only 5 percentage points in amount of warning information remembered.

The researchers found something else interesting about the people who had strong emotional reactions to the warnings: Even when they couldn’t remember the exact warning that was paired with their image, they were more likely than others to spontaneously recall other risk information that they weren’t shown.

“They were recognizing real risks of smoking, just not the ones they were shown in the study,” said Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, a co-author of the study and a research associate in psychology at Ohio State.

“They were reminded of other bad things about smoking that they already knew.”

Compared to those who received the other messages, smokers who received the graphic-image warnings had greater emotional reactions to the images, which related in turn to them thinking they were at greater risk of dying younger or getting a life-threatening disease because of their cigarette use. They were also more likely to say they were thinking about quitting.

“The results suggest that the high-emotion warnings will teach people more about the health risks of smoking and possibly get them to act,” Peters said.

“Research has shown that the average smoker has surprisingly superficial knowledge about the risk. They know it is bad for them, but if we can teach them the specific risks of smoking, we believe it will stick in their heads and have a bigger impact in the long-term.”

The key is to find a way – such as the graphic images in this study – to arouse people’s emotions. Research on memory consolidation shows that strong emotions that excite people can disrupt immediate memory, just as it did in this study, Peters said.

But it also helps to support memory over the long term. “That’s why pictorial warnings can be so effective,” she said.

Peters and Shoots-Reinhard conducted the study with Ohio State colleagues in psychology and the College of Public Health, and Daniel Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

This research was supported by grants from the [national%20cancer%20institute]National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products.

A terrain map that shows Antarctica in stunning detail

Sept. 4, 2018

Project allows scientists to see continent in high resolution

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Scientists have released the most accurate, high-resolution terrain map of Antarctica ever created.

The new map has a resolution of 2 to 8 meters, compared to 1,000 meters, which was typical for previous maps.

“It is the highest-resolution terrain map by far of any continent,” said Ian Howat, professor of earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University.

“Up until now, we’ve had a better map of Mars than we’ve had of Antarctica. Now it is the best-mapped continent.”

Howat is the leader of the mapping project, called The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA).

The map and associated images and data will change science in Antarctica, Howat said, especially as it is updated.

“At this resolution, you can see almost everything. We can actually see variations in the snow in some places. We will be able to measure changes in the surface of the continent over time,” he said.

“We will see changes in snow cover, changes in the motion of ice, we will be able to monitor river discharge, flooding and volcanoes. We will be able to see the thinning of glaciers.”

The University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center also helped lead the project.

“Considering that Antarctica is the highest, driest, and one of the most remote places on Earth, we now have an incredible topographic model to measure against in the future,” said Paul Morin, a University of Minnesota earth sciences researcher and the director of the Polar Geospatial Center.

How detailed is the map? Well, the total file size is more than 150 terabytes, or 150,000 gigabytes.

The map is precise and accurate enough that it will allow scientific teams to plan some trips over the treacherous terrain of the continent.

“It changes the threshold of what you can do in the comfort of your own office compared to what you had to do in the field,” Howat said.

The project began with images taken from a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites that passed over areas of Antarctica an average of 10 times to take photographs.

In addition to the images, the REMA project needed software developed by Howat and M.J. Noh of the Byrd Center that processed the data on high-performance supercomputers.

The software automated the assembly of overlapping pairs of high-resolution satellite images.

“We had to start from scratch to build this. The software had to filter the data, process it, and turn it into a refined product for the scientific and broader community to use,” Howat said.

Other collaborators included the University of Illinois, which provided the Blue Waters supercomputer that processed the images. Ohio State was also involved with a complementary project, the Arctic Digital Elevation Model, which was launched earlier this year. Support for REMA was provided by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation.

The Conversation

Have we forgotten the true meaning of Labor Day?

August 29, 2017


Jay L. Zagorsky

Economist and Research Scientist, The Ohio State University


The Ohio State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Labor Day is a U.S. national holiday held the first Monday every September. Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is a strange celebration without rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most people it simply marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year.

The holiday’s founders in the late 1800s envisioned something very different from what the day has become. The founders were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.

History of Labor Day

The first Labor Day occurred in 1882 in New York City under the direction of that city’s Central Labor Union.

In the 1800s, unions covered only a small fraction of workers and were balkanized and relatively weak. The goal of organizations like the Central Labor Union and more modern-day counterparts like the AFL-CIO was to bring many small unions together to achieve a critical mass and power. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.

However, the organizers had a large problem: No government or company recognized the first Monday in September as a day off work. The issue was solved temporarily by declaring a one-day strike in the city. All striking workers were expected to march in a parade and then eat and drink at a giant picnic afterwards.

The New York Tribune’s reporter covering the event felt the entire day was like one long political barbecue, with “rather dull speeches.”

Why was Labor Day invented?

Labor Day came about because workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job.

In the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in 70-hour weeks on average. Sixty years later, in 1890, hours of work had dropped, although the average manufacturing worker still toiled in a factory 60 hours a week.

These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day. They also focused on getting workers more days off, such as the Labor Day holiday, and reducing the workweek to just six days.

These early organizers clearly won since the most recent data show that the average person working in manufacturing is employed for a bit over 40 hours a week and most people work only five days a week.

Surprisingly, many politicians and business owners were actually in favor of giving workers more time off. That’s because workers who had no free time were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment or dining out.

As the U.S. economy expanded beyond farming and basic manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.

Common misconceptions

The common misconception is that since Labor Day is a national holiday, everyone gets the day off. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While the first Labor Day was created by striking, the idea of a special holiday for workers was easy for politicians to support. It was easy because proclaiming a holiday, like Mother’s Day, costs legislators nothing and benefits them by currying favor with voters. In 1887, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey all declared a special legal holiday in September to celebrate workers.

Within 12 years, half the states in the country recognized Labor Day as a holiday. It became a national holiday in June 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill into law. While most people interpreted this as recognizing the day as a national vacation, Congress’ proclamation covers only federal employees. It is up to each state to declare its own legal holidays.

Moreover, proclaiming any day an official holiday means little, as an official holiday does not require private employers and even some government agencies to give their workers the day off. Many stores are open on Labor Day. Essential government services in protection and transportation continue to function, and even less essential programs like national parks are open. Because not everyone is given time off on Labor Day, union workers as recently as the 1930s were being urged to stage one-day strikes if their employer refused to give them the day off.

In the president’s annual Labor Day declaration last year, Obama encouraged Americans “to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.”

The proclamation, however, does not officially declare that anyone gets time off.

Controversy: Militants and founders

Today most people in the U.S. think of Labor Day as a noncontroversial holiday.

There is no family drama like at Thanksgiving, no religious issues like at Christmas. However, 100 years ago there was controversy.

The first controversy that people fought over was how militant workers should act on a day designed to honor workers. Communist, Marxist and socialist members of the trade union movement supported May 1 as an international day of demonstrations, street protests and even violence, which continues even today.

More moderate trade union members, however, advocated for a September Labor Day of parades and picnics. In the U.S., picnics, instead of street protests, won the day.

There is also dispute over who suggested the idea. The earliest history from the mid-1930s credits Peter J. McGuire, who founded the New York City Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, in 1881 with suggesting a date that would fall “nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving” that “would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

Later scholarship from the early 1970s makes an excellent case that Matthew Maguire, a representative from the Machinists Union, actually was the founder of Labor Day. However, because Matthew Maguire was seen as too radical, the more moderate Peter McGuire was given the credit.

Who actually came up with the idea will likely never be known, but you can vote online here to express your view.

Have we lost the spirit of Labor Day?

Today Labor Day is no longer about trade unionists marching down the street with banners and their tools of trade. Instead, it is a confused holiday with no associated rituals.

The original holiday was meant to handle a problem of long working hours and no time off. Although the battle over these issues would seem to have been won long ago, this issue is starting to come back with a vengeance, not for manufacturing workers but for highly skilled white-collar workers, many of whom are constantly connected to work.

If you work all the time and never really take a vacation, start a new ritual that honors the original spirit of Labor Day. Give yourself the day off. Don’t go in to work. Shut off your phone, computer and other electronic devices connecting you to your daily grind. Then go to a barbecue, like the original participants did over a century ago, and celebrate having at least one day off from work during the year!

Study finds you act most like “you” in a time crunch

Ohio State University

Sept. 4, 2018

Under time pressure, selfish people act even more selfishly

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When they must act quickly, selfish people are likely to act more selfishly than usual, while pro-social people behave even more pro-socially, a new study found.

The results suggest that when people don’t have much time to make a decision, they go with what they’ve done in similar situations, said Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology and economics at The Ohio State University.

“People start off with a bias of whether it is best to be selfish or pro-social. If they are rushed, they’ll tend to go with that bias,” Krajbich said.

But when people have more time to decide, they are more likely to go against their bias as they evaluate the options in front of them, he said.

Krajbich conducted the study with Fadong Chen of Zhejiang University in China. Their results were published Sept. 3 in the journal Nature Communications.

The study involved 102 college students from the United States and Germany who played 200 rounds of a game that is often used in psychology and economics experiments. In each round, played on a computer, the participants chose between two ways of splitting up a real sum of money. Both choices favored the person playing the game, but one choice shared more of the money with the unseen partner.

“The participants had to decide whether to give up some of their own money to increase the other person’s payoff and reduce the inequality between them,” Krajbich said.

The decision scenarios were very different. In some cases, the participants would have to give up only, say, $1 to increase their partner’s payoff by $10. In others, they might have to give up $1 to give their partner an extra $1. And in other cases, they would have to make a large sacrifice – for example, give up $10 to give their partner an extra $3.

The key to this study is that participants didn’t always have the same amount of time to decide, Krajbich said.

In some cases, participants had to decide within two seconds how they would share their money as opposed to other cases, when they were forced to wait at least 10 seconds before deciding. And in additional scenarios, they were free to choose at their own pace, which was usually more than two seconds but less than 10.

The researchers used a model of the “normal” decisions to predict how a participant’s decisions would change under time pressure and time delay.

“We found that time pressure tends to magnify the predisposition that people already have, whether it is to be selfish or pro-social,” Krajbich said.

“Under time pressure, when you have very little time to decide, you’re going to lean more heavily than usual on your predisposition or bias of how to act.”

The situation was different when participants were forced to wait 10 seconds before deciding.

“People may still approach decisions with the expectation that they will act selfishly or pro-socially, depending on their predisposition. But now they have time to consider the numbers and can think of reasons to go against their bias,” he said.

“Maybe you’re predisposed to be selfish, but see that you only have to give up $1 and the other person is going to get $20. That may be enough to get you to act more pro-socially.”

The results may help explain why some previous studies found that time pressure makes people more selfish, while others found that it makes people more pro-social.

“It really depends on where you’re starting, on how you’re predisposed to decide,” Krajbich said.

The Conversation

Is freelancing the future of employment?

August 15, 2017


Anthony Hussenot

Professor in Organization Studies, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis

Disclosure statement

Anthony Hussenot does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Today, freelancers represent 35% of the United States workforce. In the European Union, the rate is 16.1%. Both figures demonstrate the same global trend: from creative entrepreneurs to those paid by the task, freelancing is on the rise worldwide.

So, too, are analyses of this phenomenon, as journalists, sociologists, human resources specialists, life coaches, even freelancers themselves try to uncover “the truth” about freelancing.

That’s because of the “gig economy”, as it is sometimes called, is a Janus-faced – and relentlessly evolving – phenomenon. Freelancing is often portrayed as liberating, empowering, and even glamorous, but the reality is far more complex.

In OECD countries, studies show that these individuals work chiefly in the service sector (50% of men and 70% of women). The remainder are everything from online assistants to architects, designers and photographers.

From the creative class to the precariat

A 2017 study found that the majority of freelancers in OECD countries are “slashers”, meaning that their contract work supplements another part-time or full-time position.

These additional earnings can vary considerably. Those who spend a few hours a month editing instruction manuals from home may earn a few hundred euros a month. Freelance occupational therapists may pull in ten times that working full-time in this growing industry.

Perhaps the most glamorous face of freelancing is the so-called creative class, an agile, connected, highly educated and globalised category of workers that specialise in communications, media, design, art and tech, among others sectors.

They are architects, web designers, bloggers, consultants and the like, whose job it is to stay on top of trends. The most cutting-edge among them end up playing the role of social “influencers”.

In London, this group has been partially responsible for what the economist Douglas McWilliams has dubbed the “flat-white economy”, a flourishing, coffee-fuelled market based on creativity, which combines innovative approaches to business and lifestyle.

Such hipsters, who are also referred to as “proficians”, may be relatively successful in their self-employment, with numerous gigs and a wide portfolio of clients. For McWilliams, they just might represent the future of British prosperity.

Also working hard, though in a much less exalted fashion, are the “precarians”. These task-tacklers work long hours carrying our repetitive tasks, often for a single online platform like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Most of their gigs do not require a high level of expertise and creativity, and are thus easily interchangeable.

Job security is not assured for these online helpers, and though they likely work for a single company, as employees do, benefits are almost certainly nonexistent.

Between the creative class and those struggling to juggle enough gigs to get by, there are plenty of in-betweeners: bloggers driven by their passion to write but struggling to earn a decent living; online assistants satisfied with their jobs who had previously faced unemployment; students earning a few extra euros by working a handful of hours a week as graphic designers.

Freelancers constitute a diverse population of workers – their educational backgrounds, motivations, ambitions, needs, and willingness to work differ from one worker to the next, and it is accordingly difficult for commentators to accurately represent their diversity without resorting to caricature.

The search for freedom…and an income

Freelancing is increasingly a choice that people make in order to escape the 9-to-5 workday.

Many freelancers, whatever their job, may have originally opted for this employment model because it offers (or seemed to offer) freedom – the freedom to work anytime and, in some cases, anywhere. Only 37% of current US freelancers say they resort to gig work out of necessity; in 2014, that figure was higher, at 47%.

Of course, this is not the end of the salariat. Full-time, company-based work is still the standard for employment in most Western countries, as it is in Russia.

Nevertheless, with the rise of telecommuting and automation and the unlimited potential of crowdsourcing, it stands to reason that more and more firms will begin running, and even growing, their businesses with considerably fewer employees.

This does not necessarily mean an increase in unemployment. Instead, it likely means more freelancers, who will form and reform around various projects in constant and evolving networks.

The rise of freelancing may be a key visible indicator of the future of work, notably in terms of collaboration practices. Freelancers are already facilitating the co-management of projects. Soon enough, they will also be producing, communicating, and collaborating with firms, customers, and with society at large.

Given that they are not a homogeneous class of workers, managing these new managers will not be simple. Currently, there is not a single social protection system that cleanly corresponds to all freelancers, from house cleaners and taxi drivers to architects and news editors.

How can these individuals group and work together to promote and defend their diverse employment interests? Surely, some ambitious freelancer is on the case right now.

File – In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, firefighters keep watch the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Researchers have expanded a health-monitoring study of wildland firefighters after a previous study found season-long health declines and deteriorating reaction times. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File) – In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, firefighters keep watch the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Researchers have expanded a health-monitoring study of wildland firefighters after a previous study found season-long health declines and deteriorating reaction times. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

Staff & Wire Reports