What makes first responders twitch? True stories like this one:

It happened right in front of a hospital. A car hit a utility pole and the pole fell on the car. The guy who saw it happen, a trained first responder, ran into the ER for help. They called the police and rescue … then, everyone sat around looking at the car under the utility pole for what seemed an agonizingly long time until the power company came and assured everyone that there was no danger of electrocution.

First responders will take the most prudent track and wait until they can be assured that an accident doesn’t take on even more tragic proportions with a would-be lifesaver losing his or her life. Bottom line: don’t attempt a rescue until assurances of safety for the rescuers are given.

The man in the car survived his incident with no major injuries — but it’s doubtful he would have survived a major trauma to an artery while everybody waited. Tough choices are made every day by first responders. But self-protection is the right choice. Responders will make the situation worse if they are injured or get killed.

Who is a first responder?

In the context of a workplace accident, the “first responder” is often simply the first person on the scene, regardless of training. It may be an emergency medical technician, or someone with a first-aid card who will do the best he or she can until professional assistance arrives. Let’s look at the precautions employees should take to protect their own safety should they be first on the scene responding to a workplace incident or injury.

Note: This information does not and should not replace your existing workplace safety procedures or policies.

Tip 1: First aid

If you are a designated first-aid provider or are pressed into service to administer first aid, you may become exposed to bloodborne pathogens. To protect yourself:
  • Use a CPR mask when performing CPR. This will help prevent transmission of AIDS or hepatitis C.
  • View all blood as contagious. Always use nitrile gloves or other impermeable hand protection when treating cuts and abrasions.
  • Remove any clothing that has come in contact with blood, and put it in a plastic bag.
  • Wash hands or other parts of the body immediately after skin has come in contact with blood.
  • Immediately use antiseptic cleansers and clean towels to clean up spills.

    Tip 2: Chemical exposure

    All chemical exposures, no matter how small or brief, should be considered serious incidents until the hazard is assessed. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is vital for the responder’s own protection. Never approach an accident involving chemicals without PPE. Before you work around chemicals, make sure you are familiar with the types of PPE available in your work area and what PPE should be used for specific types of chemicals.

    Before responding to an exposure:

  • Read the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the chemical(s) and the label on the chemical’s container.
  • From the MSDS, find the level of PPE required and put it on.
  • If no information about the chemical(s) is available, use the maximum level of PPE available at the workplace.

    If you are exposed to a chemical:

  • Flush eyes with water for 15 minutes.
  • Wash skin with soap and water, and remove contaminated clothing.
  • Move to fresh air.
  • Get emergency medical assistance.

    Tip 3: Confined space rescue

    Statistics compiled by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that 60 percent of confined space injuries are sustained by the rescuer. In too many cases, the would-be rescuer, often the confined space attendant, was not trained or equipped to enter the space for rescue. Would-be rescuers should:

  • Treat all confined spaces as hazardous.
  • Never, ever enter a confined space without adequate training and the proper equipment.
  • If provided, use the rescue tripod and winch or lifeline to move the injured entrant from the space.
  • Before any other action, call 911 or follow other communications procedures to summon trained rescuers.

    Tip 4: Electrical hazard

    Contact with electrical energy is a major concern when trying to help an injured person near energized power lines or equipment. Make sure the person you are helping is not in contact with electrical energy sources, or else you will be the next victim.

  • Don’t touch the person while he or she is receiving a shock; you may also be shocked.
  • From a safe location, shut off power to the equipment that caused or is causing a shock.
  • If the injured person is in contact with an energized source, use wood to move the part of the body in contact with the source. If available, use rope or even a disconnected extension cord to loop around the person to pull them away from the energy source.

    Tip 5: Hazardous materials

    Here are some precautions to follow if you are involved in an incident involving hazardous materials:

  • Avoid contaminated areas. If a substance looks odd or smells funny, walk away from it.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings and whether anything dangerous is near you.
  • Stay upwind of any chemicals.
  • Stay 300 feet from a container that has an unknown substance, 600 feet from something that is leaking or spraying, and a minimum of 300 feet with cover when encountering an explosive device.
  • Before leaving a scene, ensure that you are not contaminated.
  • Notify authorities when you leave so they don’t waste resources looking for you.
  • Be aware if you start developing any symptoms (dimness of vision, etc.) and seek medical help immediately. Seconds and minutes count in such situations.

    Tip 6: First responder starter kit

    Make sure the following items are quickly accessible for your own safety when responding to an emergency:

  • CPR mask
  • Nitrile gloves or other hand protection
  • Safety glasses
  • Other PPE appropriate to hazards in your work area
  • First-aid kit
  • NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards (about $30) or access to MSDSs
  • Cellphone or other quick access to a communications system
  • Wallet-size list of emergency contacts

    Don’t Be a Hero

    The key to a successful response to a workplace incident or injury is to keep yourself from becoming another emergency. Don’t be a hero and attempt to respond beyond your ability or training.