Shortcuts and firefighters’ clothing don’t mix

Published:  21 August, 2015

If you are clear about your legal responsibilities in providing protective clothing for your firefighters then you could be in the minority, writes Philip Johnson of UK firefighters’ clothing supplier Flamepro.

There seems to be a certain degree of confusion in the market around two rather important issues. Firstly, around who ultimately has the responsibility for ensuring that firefighters’ protective clothing meets the needs of the wearer and secondly, how fire fighting clothing tender documents should be written.

This second point is no less worrying than the first because it demonstrates that shortcuts are increasingly being taken when specifying PPE that should be correct for the wearers’ needs. Tender documents often appear to have endured 'cut-and-paste jobs' and even include product brand names instead of generic names for the types of materials required i.e. ‘meta-aramid’ (or similar), fire-resistant touch close fastenings etc.

Going back to basics, in the UK the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations clearly state that all employers have a duty of care to their employees: ‘Every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.’

The duty of care can only be satisfied if a full risk assessment has been carried out at the start of a PPE tendering process. That responsibility cannot be undertaken by the producer or the supplier of the products, simply because they are not the employer. It is therefore incumbent upon the employer to define the risks employees face in the course of carrying out the duties that are expected of them. It is also their responsibility to keep up to date with the latest research regarding new risks that may have been unknown during a previous risk assessment.

Such new research into protecting firefighters could, for instance, encompass the latest medical studies into risks to firefighters from carcinogens penetrating the skin. Hemmingfire.com recently published an article concerning how the link between a higher risk of contracting cancers and firefighters was now becoming more established.

Two long terms studies on cancer risk in firefighters (three USA cities and five Nordic countries) showed statistically significant increases for all cancers. Worryingly, a new finding emerged from both studies showing an increase in mesothelioma, likely to be because of the asbestos exposure occurring when buildings burn, during clean up and also perhaps as a result of the asbestos protective gear which used to be widely used by firefighters.*

The findings of the above research add further weight to a growing need for rigorous risk assessments to be carried out by the employers of firefighters at all levels and sites. Clear and unambiguous instructions for maintaining a log of all PPE products, cradle to grave, is an essential step in providing the proper duty of care to all employees and the reasons for doing so.

To repeat, risk assessments cannot be carried out by the manufacturers or the suppliers of fire fighting PPE. Only the fire service can carry out the risk assessments because they have to carry them out in the first place. In these times of straightened financial circumstances the increased cost of implementing a programme of care for PPE items will be difficult to institute. However, it is clear that something along such lines needs to be done. A total care package may be one of the solutions available but this in turn will increase the costs even when spread over a long-term contract. Such packages actually cost a fire service more per annum than a straight purchase PPE from capital expenditure and load future costs on the service.

This article does not pretend to have the answers to the conundrum outlined above, it merely wishes to highlight the known facts and to promote an atmosphere of enquiry and research into how the various points raised can be addressed in everyone's interest to further firefighters' health and well being.

*Lin Fritschi, School of Public Health, Curtin University, Bentley, Western Australia, Australia and Deborah C Glass, Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, SPHPM, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Philip Johnson will be presenting on fire fighting PPE procurement tactics at the PPE & Duty of Care Forum taking place on 2 February 2016. For more information click here.

  • Operation Florian

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