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UAB researchers say add a helmet to your tornado-preparation kit

By: Bob Shepard
Helmets may prevent injury or death for those caught in a tornado, say researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Injury Control Research Center. In a commentary posted online on its website, the research team suggests that any kind of safety helmet, from hard hats to football helmets to bike helmets, are an essential addition to an individual’s tornado-safety preparations.

“Head injuries are a major cause of tornado-related deaths in the United States,” said Scott Crawford, MPH, a research assistant at the ICRC and the commentary’s lead author. “Alabama is the nationwide leader in tornado-related deaths with 412 fatalities recorded since 1980, demonstrating the need for a readily available, low-cost intervention to reduce risk.”

According to the medical examiner’s office in Jefferson County, Ala., at least 11 of the 21 fatalities in the county in the wake of the massive April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak resulted from head or neck injuries.

“Previous research has shown that most tornado-associated injuries and deaths result when people or solid objects become airborne,” said Russ Fine, Ph.D., director of the UAB ICRC. “Most victims suffer multiple traumatic injuries, including injuries to the head and neck. And head injuries have a statistically higher case-fatality rate of 23 percent versus the 3 percent case-fatality rate of all other injuries combined.”

In the commentary, the researchers recommend “the use of any helmet, or head covering made of a hard material and worn to protect the head from injury, stored in an easily and readily accessible location in the home, workplace or vehicle for which one of its purposes is to be worn in the event of or threat of tornadic activity.”

They describe a safety helmet as any structurally sound helmet, such as a motorcycle helmet, football helmet, baseball helmet, bicycle helmet, skateboard helmet, or even a construction hardhat; as long as the helmet’s original intended purpose is to minimize anatomical damage sustained as a result of high-velocity impacts.

“The ideal tornado helmet would be a full-sized racing-style motorcycle helmet with a full-face shield, as it provides complete head and face protections and is designed to minimize neck injury,” Crawford said. “But any helmet is better than no helmet at all.”

The UAB ICRC is partnering with the Alabama Head Injury Foundation to develop a public-awareness campaign supporting the use of helmets during times of tornadic activity.

“Tornados are a common event in the Midwestern states of the Tornado Alley and in the Southern states that comprise the Dixie Alley,” Fine said. “The use of helmets is a cheap, easily accessible strategy that can help save lives, and we urge all people living in tornado-prone areas to include suitable safety helmets in their tornado-preparation materials.”