Contaminants and health:

how firefighters stay safe

What firefighters are exposed to 

In their working lives firefighters may be exposed to contaminants:

  • Chemicals found at incidents involving hazardous materials
  • Products of combustion at fires

How firefighters stay safe from contaminants  

Many of the contamination hazards that firefighters face, especially at incidents, are dealt with by wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) but there are other measures that we take to prevent or reduce exposure in our day-to-day work.

Our spaces 

At incidents and in our fire stations we create ‘zones’ to help us keep contaminants safely contained. These include: 

  • Red zones where contamination can occur, for example at the centre of an incident 
  • Amber zones where’s there’s a chance of cross-contamination, for example in a Breathing Apparatus (BA) maintenance room 
  • Green zones where contaminated PPE or Breathing Apparatus are not permitted, for example the kitchen or dormitories.  

Our PPE and equipment  

Taking care of our PPE and equipment is a crucial part of dealing with contaminants.  

  • Light contamination is removed from fire helmets, gloves, radio and torches using heavy duty wipes
  • Fire boots are cleaned with soapy water and a brush
  • Breathing Apparatus (BA) is washed at incidents and wiped clean at stations
  • Heavily contaminated PPE is bagged up at the incident and sent off for laundering.

And how do we know if our PPE is contaminated? Our gold-coloured PPE was chosen because the lighter colour makes it easier to spot when PPE needs to be cleaned. 

Our training and policy 

Our firefighters are given training to understand the risk of contaminants, and the processes that must be followed. They’re supported by our recently updated Fire Contaminants Policy which explains the potential risks of fire contaminated PPE and equipment and how to minimise fire contamination. 

What about members of the public involved in a fire?

The risk of contaminants is much lower to a member of the public who has been involved in a fire. For our firefighters the risk of exposure to contaminants is higher due to their exposure over time as part of their jobs.  

Following media reports in January 2023, we have heard from members of the Grenfell Tower community that many people are worried and anxious about their health. We understand this concern. 

The NHS have a monitoring programme in place to look at the health of survivors, family members and residents of North Kensington. That includes enhanced health checks for the wider community. 

Our data shows that in comparison to operational staff that did not attend the Grenfell Tower fire, there has not been a higher incidence of cancer among staff that did.

Working towards a safer future

The cancer agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has declared that occupational exposure as a firefighter is classified as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ in relation to mesothelioma and bladder cancer.

There are reports from general global research that incidences of some cancers have moderately raised in firefighters. But this research is based on cumulative, prolonged exposure to fire contaminants over time - not single incidents.

We’re committed to reducing the levels of fire contaminants that staff are exposed to and minimising the health risks they could cause. 

Fire contaminants research

In order to improve our understanding, we’re currently working with Imperial College London to research the impact of contaminants on the fire ground and in particular any health issues that relate to our attendance at the Grenfell Tower fire.

The study has seen around 650 firefighters so far, the vast majority of whom were involved in tackling the fire or the recovery operations afterwards. 

When the study is complete and the results analysed in full, a report will be produced on the cardiorespiratory health of the firefighters.

In January 2020 the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the University of Central Lancashire launched a national survey that looked at the impact on firefighters of exposure to toxic contaminants.

The survey was part of a three-year research project that aimed to better understand how and when firefighters are exposed to toxic contaminants and how fire and rescue services are using PPE and other control measures to reduce the risks.

We will continue to pay close attention to the results of scientific studies and use what we learn to reduce the risk to firefighters even further.

Working with partners

The LFB, FBU (London Region) and Unison have come together through the Brigade Joint Committee Health Safety and Wellbeing meeting (BJCHSW) to set up a Contaminant Working Group (CWG) to consider and respond to the findings of the research projects into contaminants on the fire ground  This work will be ongoing as new findings are reported.

The first step was the new contaminants policy and awareness training which the Brigade launched in November 2022. This policy aligns with FBU contaminants guidance and is informed by industry. The measures within the policy form part of the LFB’s safe systems of work and significantly reduce the risk from contaminants by preventing, reducing and limiting exposure.

An LFB monitoring group also meets monthly to analyse data and feedback from debriefs of incidents to identify how the policy is working and if any further improvements are needed.

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