Healthy firefighters: prevention is key

Firefighters face major challenges in their line of work: they literally walk through fire to save victims. But this comes with some huge risks. The specific problems facing these emergency workers require specific prevention measures.

Recent research by the British Heart Foundation has shown that exposure to extreme heat whilst firefighting increases the risk of heart attack. A large-scale study among U.S. firefighters also revealed that firefighters have a higher risk of cancer. And where there's smoke, there's fire: these findings prove once more how the health of firefighters is severely affected by on-the-job exposures.

Physical risk factors

Johan Theunissen, occupational safety and health expert at Mensura: “We are all aware of the dangers of fire. However, smoke inhalation is especially dangerous because of the particles found in smoke. These particles are absorbed through the skin and through inhalation, and they increase the risk of certain cancers and other diseases.”

According to Jan Vanoeteren, occupational health physician at Mensura, the problem doesn’t stop there: “Peak efforts and extended operations, which are typical in this line of work, put the cardiovascular system under a lot of strain. The body also needs to cool down after each firefighting operation.”

“Wearing a firefighter uniform, carrying equipment and evacuating victims are physically demanding tasks. In addition, firefighters are frequently exposed to health hazards such as toxicchemicals, fine dust, asbestos and radiation.”

Material maintenance: clean and care

Because of those risks, it is paramount for firefighters to undergo intense training and specific health checks. Johan: “We really want to bring about a shift in mentality among firefighters. Some of them still believe that the dirtier your uniform and helmet are, the harder you’ve worked. As if somehow that is how you earn your stripes. That is why we are focusing heavily on a clean-and-care strategy, making clean, healthy firefighters a priority.”

“All firefighter uniforms are now washed after everyintervention”, Johan explains. “We are currently testing the CO2 cleaning technology. It is faster, less harmful to the environment and less damaging to the fabric. A ministerial circular also specifies the annual material inspection requirements: based on a checklist, all equipment is individually assessed and repaired or replaced as needed.” 

Safe and clean procedures

Improvements need to be made not only in material maintenance but also in the procedures that take place before, during and after fire operations. Johan: “Being able to change in and out of uniforms in a clean and safe environment in the vicinity of the fire activity greatly benefits the health of firefighters, as it prevents fire trucks and change rooms at the barracks from getting soiled or contaminated. Firefighters should also keep on their protective gloves and mouthpieces even after the intervention, to prevent contact with or inhalation of hazardous substances.”

“The barracks and the intervention area are divided into separate ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ zones. This is how we keep dirty clothing or hazardous substances away from the classrooms and lunchrooms. If you’re going from one zone to the other, you will need to shower first.”

Risk management and medical monitoring

Johan and Jan’s firefighter teams can count on Mensura for assistance when it comes to risk management and medical monitoring.

Jan: “Fire departments largely rely on volunteers, which comes with its own set of challenges. To counter this problem, Mensura introduced additional health checks that are scheduled around the non-standard working hours of volunteer firefighters. During these health checks, we also try to raise more awareness about safety procedures and material use.”

“The teams we monitor are also given access to data about the smoking and drinking habits and the fitness levels of colleagues”, Jan continues. “This information—which remains entirely anonymous—easily highlights problem areas and serves as input for a targeted health policy with dedicated training courses and specific measures. Mensura can also do safety audits of the barracks and provide ergonomic advice and psychological support. Through a close partnership with the external department for prevention and protection, the fire departments can go even further than what is legally required, so they can offer the best possible safety and health guarantees to their workers.”