First aid training is prevalent, and rightfully so, since millions of people are injured annually and about 140,000 die annually from trauma. Several national organizations (e.g., National Safety Council) have published books and materials for courses aimed at providing first aid training. These same organizations train millions of people yearly.

Further evidence of the importance of first aid training is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requiring that when medical personnel are not readily available, first aid training is required. Though it's a short regulation, its importance is much greater than its length implies. An employer must assure that either of these are available: staffed medical facility nearby or personnel trained to perform first aid on site.The question about liability and other legal aspects always comes up during a first aid course. Recently, I had first aid students searching a law school library for legal cases involving first aiders. Few were found. Traditionally, first aid instructors have treated liability as a possibility but not a probability.

First aiders should not ignore the problem of a possible lawsuit. In such cases it is possible that a first aider could face monetary loss. At the very least, the first aider would be required to spend considerable time preparing a defense of his or her first aid actions. One potential problem facing a first aider involved in a lawsuit even when innocent is the loss of reputation. Another negative effect is the impact of a lawsuit upon one's "self confidence," and that perhaps at a future injury scene needing first aid, the first aider may have "second thoughts" about helping.

No one is required to render aid when no legal duty to do so exists. For example, even a physician could ignore a stranger suffering a heart attack or a fractured bone. Hopefully, moral obligations will occur even if the law says that a person is not required to render first aid. So when your employment requires the giving of first aid (e.g., teacher to a student, lifeguard to a swimmer, etc.), by all means provide first aid. Also, once you start giving first aid, don't abandon the victim until qualified medical assistance can replace you. Moreover, follow the published recommended first aid procedures. For example, the American Heart Association publishes procedures for giving CPR and for helping the heart attack victim. Another example is the American Diabetes Association, which has guidelines for those helping in a diabetic emergency. The list of examples could go on.

Some people completing a first aid course that gives a certification card believe that the certificate protects them against a lawsuit. All the certificate does is verify that the holder of the certificate completed a first aid and/or CPR course. It does not guarantee first aid performance or suggest a form of licensing. Many people make the certification card to more than it is. No first aid and/or CPR training organization provides legal counsel or assistance in the event that one of their course graduates is sued. Every case has to rest on its own merits. The Good Samaritan Law applying to first aiders in somestates does not protect the person who exacerbates already existing injuries.

The best protection for first aiders giving care to the injured or suddenly sick is to obtain the best first aid training available, and to obtain continuous training.

The National Safety Council has recently released a new first aid program featuring the best books and materials ever produced in first aid. Nationally recognized certification cards are available. More than 20 nationally known organizations reviewed and/or contributed to the materials. The student book is in full color. Instructor materials include videos, slides and other items.

For more information about the National Safety Council first aid training program or those interested in becoming instructors call Randy Cooper at the Utah Safety Council (in the Salt Lake City area call 533-5851; others may use a toll-free number, 1 (800) 933-5943).

- Alton Thygerson is a professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University.