As you’ll have seen hosted on the UK Fire website, Dräger, an international leader in medical and safety technology, has conducted a survey into the health concerns of serving firefighters. This is a follow up to Dräger’s 2020 ‘Health for the Firefighter’ survey and seeks to find out if perceptions have changed, specifically with regard to their potential exposure to carcinogens, contaminants and viruses such as Covid-19. It also investigates which technologies are seen to be the most important in supporting firefighter health.
Ultimately, the purpose of the research is to inform how Dräger can further support Fire Services and their personnel and help drive the cultural changes that are required to protect firefighter health.
This research follows a report released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organisation (WHO) body, in which firefighting was declared as a ‘carcinogenic occupation’.1 The IARC and WHO’s categorisation is a significant and alarming development for the fire sector in the UK, further strengthening the call for improved decontamination procedures, regular health screening and the recording of exposures within the firefighting occupation.
Respondents came from a variety of different job roles within the fire service and varied demographics. Questions were asked on age, gender and ethnicity to assess how diversity impacted responses. The average number of years served by responding firefighters was 22.4, the average age was 48, which is seven years older than government statistics; and some 9.8% identified as women; 2.3% above the national average. Dräger’s sample was more ethnically diverse than the national average, with 15.8% coming from minority ethnic groups, 11.1% above government statistics.
The results from Dräger’s survey strongly support the call for improved decontamination procedures, with 100% of survey respondents admitting concern that exposure to carcinogens would impact their long-term health, and 65.2% categorising this concern as considerable. This was a significant increase from the 2020 survey, where 84.6% admitted concern in 2020, 34.2% of which was considerable. This rise may be attributed to increased awareness brought about recent research and FBU initiatives.
Indeed, 70.6% of respondents stated that the reduction of carcinogen exposure as a firefighter was ‘extremely important’ in their working environment, with a further 17.6% declaring they found it ‘very important’.
Brian Hesler, Consultant and Specialist Advisor at Dräger Safety UK and former Chief Fire Officer for the Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, says as an industry it is our responsibility to act upon these concerns: ‘Such far-reaching and significant concerns are not a surprise, but it is vital that we utilise technology, expertise and research to reduce carcinogen exposure and ensure that the health and wellbeing of those protecting the public are prioritised.
‘It is for this reason that Dräger’s Health for the Firefighter campaign exists and is the driving force at Dräger. It guides how Dräger designs PPE and equipment to be easy to clean, in its mechanical cleaning solutions and in supporting bespoke workshop solutions that guide the potentially contaminated kit from entering the station, from handling and storage, through to the subsequent cleaning of the kit after an incident has occurred.’
Unsurprisingly, concern about exposure to Covid-19 has reduced since the 2020 survey, with 46.3% stating moderate to considerable concern compared a previous figure of 68.4%. ‘However, this does still mean that nearly half of respondents are concerned as to how exposure to Covid-19 will impact their long-term health,’ says Brian. ‘And it is further reason that thorough and consistent approaches to cleaning equipment are prioritised.’
Whilst the majority of equipment cleaning processes remain manual within UK Fire Services, more than three quarters (78.3%) of survey respondents claimed that the washing of masks or cleaning apparatus in a mechanical cleaning machine would improve their health.
Interestingly, however, despite 79.7% of respondents claiming that the cleaning of masks, PPE, BA and associated equipment was ‘extremely important’ in their working lives, when asked if their approach towards cleaning their equipment had changed following the Covid-19 pandemic, just under half (49.2%) agreed. This may be because changes were already in place pre-pandemic, and that exposure to carcinogens is understandably seen to be the more serious threat.
‘It is still the case that the lessons learned regarding equipment hygiene during the pandemic have been far reaching, and have proven essential in increasing firefighter health, both on and off duty,’ adds Brian.
Future technologies and ergonomics
The survey also asked which technologies our respondents thought would be most important in protecting firefighter long-term health. A significant four out of ten (40.6%) opted for ‘contamination detection equipment’ as key to their long-term health, with the next most important being biometric monitoring, with nearly one in three (30%) prioritising this technology.
Respondents were also asked, ‘Ergonomically, what is most important to comfort when wearing SCBA?’ With lightness coming out on top, followed by adjustability, Brian explains that the results mirror Dräger’s market understanding: ‘Lightness and adjustability deliver freedom of movement, which is of course critical within emergency incident scenarios. Where people chose ‘other’, they all stated ‘all of the above’ – which is entirely reasonable! And it is the role of manufacturers to deliver on all these benefits.’
Dräger’s research suggests that a very significant health concern for fire service men and women is the potential exposure to carcinogens, which is also an issue being heavily addressed by industry. Brian says a joined-up approach will be key to impacting the required cultural and behavioural changes: ‘It will be through coordinated and cohesive action and communication from across the industry, from Fire Services, and manufacturers to unions and training bodies, that we will stop firefighters wearing dirty kit as a badge of honour proving their hard work, to truly understanding that clean kit saves lives.
‘Mechanical cleaning systems are an important development as they deliver complete consistency in washing temperatures, the amount of detergent used, and the speed of both the washing and drying process – all of which can work together to thoroughly clean kit and protect its longevity.
‘Firefighters must be protected not only from “traditional” hazards such as smoke, fire and hazardous material but their equipment must also protect from the contaminants and carcinogens found within their working environments to reduce the likelihood of obtaining long-lasting health issues and complications.’
For more information, go to www.draeger.com