Injuries Rising From Gear Designed to Protect, Enhance Job Performance

Vests mounted with remote control equipment that railroad conductors and trackmen are wearing are causing a growing number of injuries in CSX and Norfolk Southern rail yards, according to colleague and fellow FELA attorney John C.. The design of the vests, which permit wearers to hang from the side of a locomotive while remotely operating train controls, forces people to lean far from the side of the engines. John explains that this leaves the conductors and trackmen vulnerable to falls and collisions with other rail cars, buildings and fences.

Back, neck, shoulder, soft tissue and musculoskeletal injuries stemming from the on-the-job accidents have left several railroad employees unable to work and, sometimes, permanently disabled.

Reading John's brief article on the problems with remote control vests in rail yards, I was reminded of a two-part series of articles that ran in the Seattle Times in February 2011. The analysis of injury and field performance problems caused by protective, communications and combat gear for Navy, Marine and Army personnel was a little shocking to me but probably would not surprise military personnel.

A soldier at Fort Jackson could probably tell me that body armor, rucksack, rifle, water and all the other things they wear  and carry in the field can add 127 lbs. to their own body weight. Marines at Camp Lejeune might say their kit weighs out at around 90 lbs., but add that the load limits their ability to react quickly in a firefight.

Other significant problems caused by heavy gear in the field are herniated and ruptured disks in the spine, reduced readiness due to arthritis and sprains and strains, and, importantly, medical discharges due to unresolved back, neck and pain problems. The chronic pain issue may be the most significant since narcotic painkillers, even when effective, can lead to a lifetime of difficulties with dependence, addiction and impairment.

No one wants soldiers, Marines or other service members to have less protection or ability to communicate from the field, but the sheer weight of the equipment limits its effectiveness and puts military personnel at risk for injuries. The Seattle Times series noted that all branches of the military are working on lighter gear. I hope those efforts succeed. The men and women of our military deserve no less than best, lightest-weight equipment to keep them safe and help them do their jobs.

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