Firefighters risk their physical and mental health daily to save people’s lives. In America, the first responders usually include paramedics, firefighters, and emergency medical professionals. That means they are the first to reach you after you have an accident.
Based on a firefighter’s utter superhero abilities, you might think they are invincible. However, they face various health challenges due to exposure to harmful elements and situations.
During their heroic attempt to save you, firefighters become susceptible to injuries from burns, falls, and slips. Other than that, they get exposed to toxic chemicals on duty. Hence, it leads to cancer and other cardiovascular diseases. Statistics suggest that 16% of firefighting accidents occur during on-duty activities.
In this blog, we will discuss the types of health risks firefighters face and prevention methods.
#1. Mental Health Issues
Firefighters often overlook the toll their jobs take on their mental well-being. Their extensive work hours and endless responsibilities affect their psychological health. Studies show that 57% of firefighters develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, constant exposure to traumatic events leads to irritability and flashbacks.
Other mental health problems include depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, and suicidal ideation. Researchers suggest that suicide rates are twice the national average for firefighters. Approximately 100 to 200 firefighters die by suicide each year.
Additionally, most firefighters think they must be self-sufficient when dealing with mental health problems. However, they must seek psychological help or go to rehab facilities. They can also prioritize sleep, exercise, improve diets, and diversify their lives to deal with these problems.
#2. Chronic Respiratory Disease
Firefighters can experience occupational exposure to harmful chemicals, gasses, and other particulates. Examples include hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, phosgene, and aldehyde. Inhaling these substances for prolonged periods can damage anyone’s respiratory system.
In the line of duty, combustion can generate countless harmful elements that irritate the lungs. Some might develop acute effects of hypoxemia, while others may develop chronic respiratory diseases. For instance, firefighters can develop abnormal lung functions and bronchitis.
Hence, these heroes should wear breathing apparatus or protective equipment to reduce the risk of pulmonary diseases. Moreover, they should quit smoking and follow a health safety program to deal with this.
The fumes from the smoke and the fire extinguishers can affect a firefighter’s physical well-being. In the line of duty, they get exposed to carcinogenic compounds like asbestos, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, formaldehyde, and more. For instance, reports suggest that Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a highly effective firefighting foam for fuel fires, contains PFAS elements.
Firefighters exposed to AFFF are prone to different types of cancer, infertility issues, increased cholesterol levels, and more. According to TruLaw, manufacturers like 3M, DuPont, and Chemours knew about the PFAS content. However, they did nothing to warn the fire departments.
This act of corporate misconduct led to an AFFF firefighting foam lawsuit. Recently, 3M had to pay USD 850 million for PFAS environmental contamination. Similarly, DuPont and Chemours paid USD 4 billion in settlement amounts.
Firefighters can also develop cancer from other gasses and vapors during their operations. While they cannot avoid these hazardous chemical substances, firefighters can take on-duty precautions.
Safeguarding Firefighters From These Risks
A firefighter’s career is fast-paced, and there is zero room for mistakes. They have dedicated 24-hour shifts to saving people from explosions, car accidents, and medical emergencies. While they focus on physical fitness, firefighters might overlook their mental health.
Similarly, the fast-paced nature of their job can lead them to overlook certain things. For instance, they might forget to wear gloves during cleanup, leading to toxic exposure. That is why firefighters should follow these tips to safeguard themselves from health risks:
- Using proper PPE kits for all phases of firefighting
- Cleaning the equipment and gear regularly
- Taking a bath and washing exposed skin after every incident
- Avoiding contact with AFFF extinguishers
- Controlling the contamination from leaving the scene
- Getting annual medical and health screenings
- Wearing structural or leather gloves when on duty
- Training in a controlled environment with safe equipment
The Bottom Line
Most firefighters focus on caring for and helping others. Hence, they neglect and overlook taking care of themselves. Like you, they also need an outlet to release stress and anxiety. For example, they can exercise, hike, and meditate. Firefighters can develop health problems due to chemical exposure or on-the-job injuries. Similarly, smoke, especially from wildfires, can harm a firefighter’s lungs if inhaled. Therefore, firefighters must safeguard themselves from such risks with proper equipment, regular tests, and a healthy diet.