Protecting firefighters from exposure to harmful particulates

All firefighters know that there are many more risks to their health than just fire. Awareness about protecting firefighters from exposure to particulates – found in soot and smoke – has increased over the last few years and is as much about the right clothing as it is about safe working practices and care and maintenance of kit.

Why do firefighters need to protect themselves from exposure to particulates?

Reducing exposure to particulates is critical, because they can cling to protective kit and can get into the blood stream, putting firefighters at increased risk of cancer.

According to the FBU, “there is now mounting evidence that firefighters are at a higher risk of carcinogens and other contaminants than the rest of the population.” In the US and Canada, cancer is documented as the leading cause of death for firefighters and former firefighters.

Particulates are thought to be one of the contributing factors to the increased risks of cancer for firefighters, but the job also includes exposure to fumes and materials such as asbestos.

It’s important to understand how firefighters become exposed to particulates, and how to reduce the risk of exposure.

How firefighters can protect themselves from the particulates in soot and smoke

Recent studies conclude that particulates are most likely to enter a firefighter’s body through the skin, although they can also be breathed in.

There are several steps that firefighters can take to protect themselves from particulates, which include things to do before, during, and after an incident. Making sure you have the best protection is about a combination of working practices and having the right kit for the job.

Before an incident it’s important to assess your PPE. It’s no longer a badge of honour to wear the dirtiest kit. We now know that dirty kit is most likely to have particulates on it, and that handling it and wearing it again can increase the chances of exposure.

Your kit needs to fit properly, be in good condition, and be stored in an area with good ventilation so that any fumes from previous incidents can evaporate.

During a shout, firefighters need to be wearing the right kit and using the right equipment – respirators for damping down, for example, and breathing apparatus if there’s likely to be airborne combustible particles in the area. Standing upwind of a fire so your smoke exposure is minimised is second nature to many, but it’s advice that bears repeating.

Keeping the windows and doors of the appliance shut if there’s lots of smoke also helps to maintain a clean environment to travel back to the station in.

Having the right kit – with the right level of particulate protection – is also critical to limiting a firefighter’s exposure to harmful particulates. The head and neck area are exposed if firefighters only wear a helmet, creating a vulnerability. Wearing a breathable particulate hood which helps keep you cooler while providing particulate protection will keep firefighters protected from particulates and comfortable in challenging environments.

Particulate protection after an incident – the importance of cleaning and storing kit properly

Actions after the incident can also make a big impact on a firefighter’s potential exposure to particulates. Getting out of dirty kit as soon as possible, preferably in a clean area designated for removing PPE, is important. Wearing a dust mask and disposable gloves would also be good practice.

Dirty kit should be bagged and sent for appropriate cleaning. There is a British Standard for cleaning firefighting kit – BS8617:2019 – which specifies how and how often kit should be laundered and maintained.

Simple, seemingly innocuous actions can also create a risk. For example, storing dirty gloves inside a helmet can eventually transfer particulates on to a firefighter’s head, creating a risk they will be transferred to the bloodstream.

Staying safe from the risks of particulates needs a combination of awareness, the right PPE, safe working practices, plus the right care and maintenance.

To chat to one of our experts about protecting firefighters from exposure to smoke particulates and the right firefighting kit for your brigade, give us a call on +44 (0) 1332 341030.