first respondersIn honor of Fire Protection Month, the American Industrial Hygiene Association® (AIHA) is urging firefighters to better protect themselves against the countless hazardous exposures associated with the profession. 

Both modern and "legacy" materials dangerous

“The modern materials in our homes and workplaces have increased the toxicity of today’s fires, and we don’t know how these acute exposures impact people’s health,” said expert Dawn Bolstad-Johnson, MPH, CIH, CSP. “And modern materials aren’t the only concern. Even structures built with legacy materials, such as wood and cotton, can create a toxic, carcinogenic environment during a fire.” 

The level of toxicity in American homes and workplaces has increased exponentially over the last 15 years, and firefighters often remove their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) after the fire is extinguished, because they no longer perceive that a hazard is present. However, the dangers to workers’ health are often present even after a fire is extinguished. Hazardous levels of carcinogens that are not easily detected by our human senses (irritation, taste and smell) can accumulate to levels above published occupational exposure limits in the poorly ventilated areas of homes and commercial buildings.

The after-fire environment

Bolstad-Johnson, who served as an industrial hygienist with the Phoenix Fire Department in Arizona for almost two decades, believes that firefighters can better protect themselves by educating themselves about the various hazards commonly associated with fires and by wearing their SCBA in an after-fire environment, also known as fire overhaul.

“As health and safety is increasingly promoted in the fire service, there is now a heightened awareness about the exposures faced by firefighters. They need to know what they are exposed to and how to protect themselves as building materials and the contents inside our homes become less organic,” said Bolstad-Johnson.

Industrial hygienists can help

Industrial hygienists are trained to look for exposures that may cause disease or injuries to firefighters. Additionally, AIHA Consultants Listing​, the premier directory of industrial hygiene (IH) and occupational and environmental health and safety consultants, contains a listing of IH professionals who can provide guidance during overhaul. The AIHA Consultants Listing is available free of charge.

Additional AIHA resource on fire protection:

Firefighting: A Toxic Profession – An article by Dawn Bolstad-Johnson, MPH, CIH, CSP, in The Synergist, AIHA’s monthly magazine