The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a study in 2013 showing that firefighters are significantly more prone to be diagnosed, and have a higher mortality rate from cancer when compared to the general U.S. population. (Mortality and cancer incidence in a pooled cohort of US firefighters from San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia 1950-2009-October 14, 2013) The increase is due to exposure to chemicals and carcinogens that firefighters receive on the fire scene and in the firehouse.
Take a step back and look at firefighter cancer from a dollar and cents point of view. A firefighter diagnosed with cancer can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Costs are dependent upon the type of cancer, the type of treatments required (surgery, radiation, chemo therapy), and the duration of the firefighter’s absence from work. Depending on the state and type of cancer, firefighters could potentially be making claims on their personal insurance, or through workers compensation.
The best way for fire departments to avoid the tremendous cost of cancer is through prevention. There are certain steps that fire departments can take to reduce the risk of their members being diagnosed with occupational cancer. There are methods that can be utilized during a fire to reduce exposure to cancer causing agents as well, but this article will focus on preventative measures that can be taken after the fire and back at the firehouses. These steps are often overlooked, but are vital to firefighters’ health and well-being.
Here are some of the preventive steps that can be taken at the firehouse:
- Cancer Awareness Training for all members
All members should have cancer awareness and prevention training. Trainings should be implemented annually to cover newly released studies as well as the most current prevention techniques.
- Decon at the firehouse
Make sure that firefighters clean their SCBA’s, tools and the interior of the apparatus upon returning to the firehouse after a fire.
- Wash your hands
Hand washing before using the restroom will help avoid skin absorption exposure.
During a fire, firefighters absorb a multitude of chemicals and carcinogens through their skin. It is recommended that all firefighters take a shower ASAP after a fire to cleanse their skin of the toxins that have been absorbed.
- Washing station uniforms
All uniforms that have been worn during a fire should be washed using a clothes washer/dryer at the firehouse. Uniforms worn in a fire should not be taken home to avoid contaminating personal washers and dryers as well as clothing of family members.
- Washing fire gear
It is recommended that all members wash their gear ASAP and are able to switch into a backup set of gear. Members should also wash the inside and outside of their fire helmet.
- Keep fire gear outside of living quarters
Fire gear should not be allowed inside living quarters. The firehouse’s living quarters should serve as a hazmat cold zone.
- Don’t store fire gear in the apparatus bay
Fire gear should be clean, dry and placed in a well-ventilated area that is not exposed to direct sunlight.
- Don’t leave fire gear in personal vehicles
Firefighters should remove their gear from their personal vehicles ASAP. Fire gear left inside a car can give off gas and cause inhalation exposures.
- Remove ice machines and drinking fountains from the apparatus bay
Diesel exhaust fumes can enter these items causing contamination.
- Establish a health and safety wellness committee
It is recommended to establish an occupational safety and health committee. The committee can address various health and safety issues, including cancer.
- Encourage annual skin exams
One of the most common cancers that firefighters are diagnosed with is skin cancer. Make sure that firefighters have annual head to toe skin exams for the best chance to detect cancer in an early stage.
- Have exercise equipment available
Exercising regularly can reduce the risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
- Eat healthier
Having a healthy diet can reduce the risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
- Fill out exposure forms after a fire incident
Firefighters should document known details whenever they are involved in fighting any type of fire.
- No tobacco policy
Departments should create and enforce a no tobacco policy in order to reduce the risk of members being diagnosed with cancer.
The following items will cost a considerable amount of money, but are extremely important for cancer prevention:
These are just a handful of tips unrelated to active firefighting that can decrease the risk of firefighters being diagnosed with cancer.
- Annual physical exam with cancer screenings
All firefighters should receive an annual physical exam that includes cancer screenings. Early detection is a huge factor when it comes to surviving cancer. If cancer is found in an earlier stage, the opportunity to treat the cancer is less expensive, and the firefighter can experience a better quality of life.
- Second set of fire gear
Ideally, firefighters should have a second set of gear. The second set should be switched into after a fire, so firefighters do not re-contaminate themselves.
- New carcinogen blocking hoods
There are several new hoods that are now available that block out carcinogen particulates. These hoods are expensive compared to the current style most departments wear. They are important because they protect the neck, which is one of the most absorbent areas of the body.
- Diesel exhaust systems
All stations should have a diesel exhaust system.
The closed source hose capture system is generally the best system. This system requires the most maintenance involved and compliance can be an issue.
The open source vent system is the next best option. This system offers little maintenance, but can still leave diesel exhaust residue throughout the station.
The direct source capture diesel exhaust system decreases the amount of diesel exhaust particulates. These particulates can be invisible to the naked eye.
Although these measures will cost some money up front, in the long run they will save a substantial amount of money. Initializing these steps throughout departments will give firefighters the best chance of having a long and healthy career, which is priceless.
The Firefighter Cancer Consultants specialize in assisting individual fire departments in taking the proper actions to reduce their member’s chances of being diagnosed with occupational cancer. This includes:
- Fire Station Inspections
- Analysis of pertinent policies and procedures related to firefighter cancer
- Interviews with department personnel to gain an understanding of how the department functions on the fire scene and back at the firehouse
- Action Plan Reports that detail specific recommendations departments can implement is based on NFPA standards and scientific studies
- Sample policy binder that shows various policies and procedures that have been collected from across the country regarding firefighter cancer
- Eye-opening department-specific firefighter cancer awareness, prevention and support training for all department members
More information can be found at:
Direct Phone: 937.604.3611