Officer Mark Vang and his colleagues at the Eau Claire Police Department know the physical and mental demands that go with careers in law enforcement can lead to all sorts of health issues.
After all, stress, long hours in a squad car and apprehending suspects can take a toll on their bodies.
While it is impossible to eliminate all the health-related challenges that Vang and his fellow officers face, a faculty-student research team from UW-Eau Claire is working to address one problem that is all too common among patrol officers in Eau Claire and elsewhere: lower back pain.
“The police department approached us because they have an issue with officers experiencing back discomfort while they are on duty,” said Jeff Janot, a UW-Eau Claire kinesiology professor and the faculty lead on the research project. “They are going to see their doctors, who are advising them to stop wearing the belts that carry their equipment and instead wear vests. We are helping the police department determine if vests are a real solution.”
The standard police belts officers wear to carry their equipment — including everything from handcuffs to batons to flashlights — typically weigh close to 30 pounds.
Carrying that amount of weight on their hips during 10-plus hour patrol shifts puts a significant amount of pressure on the officers’ backs, especially their lower backs, Janot said.
“Policing is a physically demanding profession,” said Matt Rokus, deputy chief of police for the Eau Claire Police Department. “Officers spend an extended period of time in their vehicles because they use them as their offices. They also often have to hold suspects, run after suspects or engage in other physical activities all while carrying 30 pounds of police equipment around their waists.”
Many officers experience constant back pain, diminishing the quality of their lives, Rokus said. They also miss patrol shifts because of back issues, which leads to staffing shortages, overtime costs and numerous worker comp claims, he said.
The Eau Claire Police Department is looking to the UW-Eau Claire faculty-student research team, in partnership with Mayo Clinic Health System physicians, to help them determine if there is a safer way for officers to carry their equipment.
Specifically, the UW-Eau Claire team is studying whether replacing the belts with load-bearing vests might lessen the stress on officers’ lower backs, while still giving them easy access to the tools they need to do their jobs, Janot said.
The vests, which include bulletproof panels, hold all the officers’ equipment except Tasers and guns. Once loaded with the equipment, the vests weigh about 35 pounds, slightly more than the belts, Janot said.
However, wearing the vest shifts the weight load from the waist to the trunk of the body, he said, a move that puts less strain on the lower back.
“The vest-versus-belt issue sounds like a fairly simple question but it’s actually very complicated,” said Janot, whose research team includes three faculty and six students. “We are working to determine if the vests are a reasonable way to address the officers’ ongoing back problems.”
To help get answers, researchers are working with 15 Eau Claire police officers to study the health-related pros and cons of using the vests and the belts. For three months, some officers are wearing load-bearing vests while the others are continuing to wear belts. The officers wearing belts will then switch to vests and those wearing vests will go back to belts for an additional three months.
Throughout the six-month study, researchers will document and track how officers are feeling during and after their shifts. At the end of each shift, the officers will self-report any discomfort and rate the level of lower-back discomfort. Researchers will collect and analyze reports weekly throughout the study period.
“After six months, we will have a snapshot to see what levels of pain or discomfort these officers are experiencing over a period of time when wearing the belt and the vest,” Janot said.
The UW-Eau Claire study will help police determine whether changing from belts to vests is a good move, Rokus said. Police want the research in hand before making a decision because buying vests for all the officers would require a significant financial investment, he said, noting the department also would have to invest money and time to train officers to use the vests.
“The health of our officers is a priority,” Rokus said. “If investing in the vests is the right thing to do, then we will do it. But we need to see some research before making this type of decision.”
To the best of his knowledge, this is the first research examining whether an officer wearing a vest is less prone to lower-back discomfort, Janot said.
While the vests-versus-belts question is at the center of their project, researchers are expanding their study to include creating a current biometric profile of more than three dozen active-duty police officers, giving the police department a look at the overall health status of its officers.
Forty officers, including Rokus, will participate in the biometric screening part of the study. The biometric screenings will test such health aspects as flexibility, spinal mobility, core endurance, aerobic fitness and strength.
“Since we had a number of officers already participating, we decided we might as well get a lot of other information at the same time,” Janot said.