Dying on the job: Could a burst of activity put your life at risk?

People whose jobs involve bouts of moderate or intense physical activity should be regularly screened for cardiovascular risk factors, suggests a study that looked at firefighter deaths.

The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, which runs from April 26 to May 3.

“Knowing that these fatal heart attacks and other vascular events occur relatively frequently, fire departments and other workplaces need to be prepared to recognize these events and screen for those who may be at higher risk,” said Amna Zarar, MD, the study’s author.

About the study

Researchers examined data collected by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health from 1998 to 2012.

During that time, 199 firefighters died from cardiovascular events while on duty. These events included 167 heart attacks, 12 arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), 3 strokes and several other causes. A total of 88 of the firefighters were fighting a fire at the time, said Dr. Zarar. At least 61 of the firefighters were responding to an emergency call, and about one-third of the events occurred at the fire station after physical activity such as fitness training or lifting hoses and other heavy equipment.

The activity preceding most of the fatal cardiovascular events lasted an average 33 minutes. Some activities were rated as moderately energetic, whereas others were rated as vigorous.

The firefighters who died were an average of 49 years old with 22 years of experience on the job. An examination of their medical records found that many of them had risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

For example, among the 148 who died after vigorous activity:

  • 94 had high cholesterol
  • 93 had high blood pressure
  • 46 had a family history of heart disease
  • 42 were smokers
  • 22 had diabetes

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