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What is rhabdo and how can firefighters recognize the symptoms?

Are you a firefighter in California? Do you know about your risk to suffer a dangerous occupational illness called rhabdomyolysis — shortened to rhabdo? It is a condition that threatens those fighting fires in burning buildings as well as forest fires. The intense physical effort in firefighting can damage muscles, and rhabdo breaks down those injured muscles. The process releases electrolytes and proteins into the firefighter's blood, which can cause damage to the kidneys and heart. Rhabdo can cause death, or it could lead to permanent disability.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warns that firefighters need not have known rhabdo risk factors to develop the illness. The hot environment, combined with extreme physical exertion that is fundamental in the job, put even those firefighters in excellent health at risk.

Look out for these symptoms

Knowing the symptoms of rhabdo is crucial for early recognition because prompt treatment could save your life. NIOSH points out the following symptoms, which could appear several days after muscle damage occurred:

  • Muscle cramps: Aches, pains and muscle cramps more severe than what you expect after exertion are typically the most prominent symptoms.
  • Fatigue: If you feel too tired to complete a familiar workout routine that usually poses no problem, you might have rhabdo.
  • Urine color: Cola- or tea-colored urine might also appear to be a sign of heat-illness or dehydration, so blood tests for the presence of creatine phosphokinase are essential. You must inform the physician of your occupation because the existence of this protein in the blood can confirm a rhabdo diagnosis.

Elements that cause rhabdo risks

Along with extreme heat exposure, the typical factors involved in your training and fighting fires are also contributing causes of developing rhabdo, including the following:

  • Carrying heavy loads: Air packs, turnout gear, and all the necessary firefighting tools can burden you with loads exceeding 100 pounds in weight.
  • Exertion levels: Carrying those heavy loads while at the same time climbing ladders, rescuing victims and navigating steep, rugged terrain cause excessive exertion.
  • Prolonged exertion: Tasks like breaking through walls require prolonged, damaging exertion.
  • Medications: Some antibiotics, medicines for allergies and colds, dietary supplements, and other prescription medications can increase the risk of suffering rhabdo.

Be aware of what your body tells you

NIOSH recommends that any firefighter who feels unwell and experiences any of these symptoms must react immediately. Taking the following steps is essential to preventing permanent health damage:

  • Stop working: Go to rest in a cool area directly and start taking in fluids.
  • Symptoms at the fire: If symptoms present while you are fighting a fire, report it to your superior immediately and call for emergency medical care.
  • Symptoms after leaving your workplace: Seek medical attention immediately, and make sure your physician knows you are a firefighter. Ask the doctor to do the necessary tests to check for rhabdo.

How will you deal with the financial consequences?

The California workers' compensation insurance system will typically make sure your occupational illness does not compromise your ability to care for your family. The program should cover all your medical expenses, and benefits should also include lost wages. However, proving that your occupation as a firefighter caused your illness might prove challenging, and that is where the skills of experienced legal counsel can take over and navigate the claims process on your behalf.

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