Canberra's ambulance service will trial electric stretchers as it looks to slash the alarming rate of back injuries suffered on the job.
A non-urgent patient transport vehicle set to join ACT Ambulance Service in June will be Canberra's first to have a powered stretcher instead of a manual one. A second electric one has been ordered for training during the eight-week trial.
But paramedics stressed the need to skip a trial and follow other jurisdictions in re-fitting all ambulances with powered stretchers, expressing concern more serious injuries could occur in the meantime.
Two thirds of ACT paramedics' accepted compensation claims from 2011 to 2016 were for musculoskeletal injuries suffered as a result of lifting and transporting patients. Back injuries were the most common, representing 42 per cent of all accepted claims.
The manual stretchers currently in Canberra ambulances weigh roughly 45 kilograms. Adding a 90-kilogram patient and a handling weight of 130 kilograms when the stretcher is lifted or loaded, paramedics can lift more than 700 kilograms a shift.
Electric stretchers have a battery-powered hydraulic system that allows for much easier and safer carrying. Canadian researchers recently concluded a shift from manual to electric could drop stretcher-related injuries by 78 per cent.
NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia have already realised these benefits, with some having re-fit their entire fleets with powered stretchers in the past two years.
ACTAS chief officer Jon Quiggin said a cost assessment will be undertaken at the end of the trial before the agency commits to ordering more.
He said "possibility will be given to the consideration of including powered stretchers" in the five new vehicles scheduled to join the fleet in 2016-17. While these ambulances had already been ordered, Mr Quiggin said the internal fit out will happen after the trial has been reviewed.
Transport Workers' Union ACT official Ben Sweaney welcomed the trial, but urged the government to re-fit its existing fleet of 25 ambulances and three non-urgent vehicles for the powered stretchers.
"The results in other jurisdictions such as South Australia and Victoria, where entire fleets have been fitted with electronic stretchers, has delivered immediate results in reducing workplace injuries," Mr Sweaney said.
"We look forward to working with the ACTAS in ensuring the entire ACT fleet contains electronic stretchers."
One Canberra paramedic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said ACTAS was "hurting people" by delaying the rollout. He said there was no need for a trial when evidence showed they made the industry safer.
"There are plenty of broken people out there," he said.
"Just troll the Facebook site for returned ambulance workers, [who] are all crippled and have bad backs.
"When you are extricating people out of difficult places you have to get in and lift them out, and it's the compounding effect of a manual stretcher which is hurting a back that is already buggered."
He said growing obesity rates worsened the situation as paramedics were lifting heavier people than ever before.
One 10-year study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found paramedics have one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, with physical injury rates far outstripping most other industries.
Mr Quiggin did not name a price for re-fitting all ambulances with electric stretchers, saying ACTAS would assess the cost after the trial had been assessed.
But it is understood it would cost around $50,000 to $60,000 to re-fit an existing vehicle, and about $25,000 to put a powered stretcher and loader in a new one after subtracting the cost of equipping it with a new one.
Canberra paramedics have access to four emergency lifting cushions which help reduce the pressure of manual handling, with 10 more on the way.
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