It was a hot summer day in our factory as workers followed their normal routines. Although temperatures could soar over 100 F, our crews were used to it. The production line was running okay – just a normal day. Yet in a single moment everything changed. One of our senior production mechanics abruptly fell to the floor, his heart no longer functioning properly.

Many businesses have never considered having an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) available in the workplace. This is understandable when you consider the panic level associated with even the thought of using one. As we will see, however, AEDs are easier to use than most people imagine, and the data shows they can and do save lives.

Cardiac Arrests by the Numbers

When we consider workplace emergencies, sudden cardiac arrest is a very real threat. I don’t consider myself a data-driven person, but some numbers are good to know, such as:

  • There are an estimated 40,000 sudden cardiac arrests each year in Canada
  • EMS treat nearly 300,000 people who suffer cardiac arrest outside the hospital in the United States each year, according to the American Heart Association. Nearly 325,000 die each year from sudden cardiac arrest
  • In cities where defibrillation is provided within five to seven minutes, the survival rate is as high as 30-45 percent

If every community could achieve even a 20 percent survival rate by having bystanders perform CPR and by making AEDs more widely available, an estimated 40,000 more lives could be saved each year (for related reading, check out CPR Certification: Why You Need It, How to Get It).

Sudden Cardiac Arrests Versus Heart Attacks

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a heart attack is not the same as a sudden cardiac arrest. A heart attack is caused by a blockage of one or more of the arteries to the heart. This prevents the heart from receiving enough oxygen-rich blood. That lack of oxygen can cause the heart muscle to become damaged.

A sudden cardiac arrest, on the other hand, occurs when the electrical system to the heart malfunctions and suddenly becomes very irregular. The heart beats dangerously fast and blood is no longer being delivered to the body. The victim will soon lose consciousness due to lack of blood to the brain. Death will soon follow in the absence of emergency treatment.

AED = The Ability to Save a Life

Unlike regular defibrillators, an automated external defibrillator requires minimal training to use. These are designed to automatically analyze the heart rhythm and will not allow an electric shock to be administered unless the rhythm is shockable.

I have performed training sessions focused on AED ease of use. In the beginning of the class, I ask how many feel they could use an AED on someone if needed. Typically, very few hands go up. After the training session, when asked, most hands are raised.

Modern AEDs are designed for the untrained individual. A friend of mine relayed the following story to me. He travels a lot and had just arrived at an airport and was rushing to his connecting flight. He saw a person drop to the ground and others gather around him. One person checked for a pulse and could not feel one. On a wall nearby was an AED. They grabbed it and turned it on. A voice from the unit began to instruct the user on exactly what to do. My friend watched as bystanders followed the instructions given by the AED. They successfully administered the shock and saved his life.

What About Liability?

AEDs have become common and easy enough to use that they are covered under the Good Samaritan laws in most of the United States. Protection under the Good Samaritan law means the person using the AED was acting in good faith as a volunteer responder. They cannot be held civilly liable for the harm or death by providing improper or inadequate care.

Ontario, Canada also has the Chase McEachern Act, passed in June of 2007. This law protects individuals from liability for damages that may occur from their use of an AED to save someone's life at the immediate scene of an emergency (for related reading, see Keeping Workers Safe and Reducing Employer Liability).

Adding AEDs to Your EHS Program

I highly recommend purchasing an AED for your business if you have many employees or customers. At the time of this writing, you can purchase an AED for around $1,000 to $2,000 – that’s not bad for a piece of equipment that can save your life.

If you decide to make one available, you will need to establish an AED program. Let’s face it, if you go to the trouble of having a piece of equipment that can save a life, you should invest in some time to make sure it is always in order and ready for use.

AED Care and Maintenance

The AED pads have expiration dates. This is to ensure the adhesive is good and the pads are functional. Make sure you replace the pads as needed. The battery also needs to be checked and replaced as needed. Some AEDs have a system check you can cycle through by hitting a button. Put together a check schedule along with a training schedule to make sure your AED is ready to use and your people are ready to use it.

Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for all care of the AED. Because this is a lifesaving device some governing agencies like OSHA may require that you maintain records of set inspections. Don’t let this deter you from purchasing one. This is a good thing; we want to make sure our AED is working if we need it. The inspections take only a moment or two. You’re mainly making sure the battery and pads are not out of date.

You will need to place it in a location that is marked, accessible, and never blocked. Although AEDs are designed so someone with no training can operate it, it is a good idea to provide training to workers. They should know how to turn it on and follow the directions. Using an AED can be scary; we are, after all, dealing with a life or death situation. The more familiar your employees are, the more confident they will feel in an actual emergency.

What Happened to Our Mechanic?

In our large factory, we have five AEDs placed throughout the main building. When our mechanic collapsed, employees had retrieved two of our AEDs and our mechanic was given the shock of life within three minutes of his collapse. Soon EMS arrived and took over.

His life was saved that day by our decision to have AEDs on the property and our commitment to make our employees confident enough to use them.

Please, Consider Making an AED Available

Many people that experience sudden cardiac arrest have no known risk factors. Defibrillation is the only known treatment proven to restore a normal heart rhythm. Although CPR can buy the victim more time for the AED to arrive, it will not restore the needed heart rhythm. Defibrillate within three minutes and the chances of survival are 70 percent. After 10 minutes, the chances of survival are negligible. EMS use an AED when they arrive on scene. Why wait for the chances of survival to slide from 70 percent to negligible?

If purchasing an AED still seems like going overboard for safety, keep in mind that the annual incidence of death from a sudden cardiac arrest is eight times that of breast cancer, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation. AEDs save lives – and the life it will save might be yours (need help convincing management? Find out how to Get Your CEO to Support Safety with the Curve Approach.)