By Mac McKleroy
One of the biggest risks for firefighters is being diagnosed with cancers that are directly caused by their work. Yet, despite these growing concerns, a survey conducted by Emergency Reporting of 600 firefighters found that 10% of respondents had little to no awareness or education being done in their agency, while over 50% believed their departments could be doing more.
Occupational Cancer Risks for Firefighters
In the last decade, new research has emerged about the health risks specific to firefighters. Of the many studies that have been conducted, most have had the same, jarring results.
In a study done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), researchers found that firefighters are 9% more likely to contract cancer and are at a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population. Specifically, cancers of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems seem to be the most common types seen in firefighters. The study also found that firefighters were two times more likely to contract mesothelioma than the general U.S. population, likely due to the increased exposure to asbestos many firefighters experience.
When addressing the health and safety of their teams, fire departments should prioritize sharing cancer prevention practices, as cancer has now become the leading cause of death in firefighters. To help departments add this topic to their discussions and trainings, we’ve put together a list of best practices to follow that reduce firefighter’s cancer risk and educate them on other healthy habits to greatly reduce the threat of contracting the disease.
8 Best Practices All Stations Must Implement
1. Wear your full PPE throughout the entire incident, including your SCBA during salvage and overhaul.
Inhalation hazards are only one of the major cancer risks for firefighters. Over time, building components and materials – along with household furniture and appliances – have changed drastically. These items now contain larger amounts of chemicals, which can create hazardous gases and contaminants during fires that stick around long after the fire has burned out.
These contaminants are often cancer causing and are found on turn-out gear and any exposed skin (which is even more susceptible to chemical absorption through raised temperatures). Research shows that “firefighters are now more likely than ever before to be exposed to hazardous materials during a structure fire than during an actual hazardous materials incident”.
2. Provide all entry-certified personnel with a second hood.
Areas like your face and neck that are not protected by your SCBA are very vulnerable. A sock hood alone is not very protective and, in the case that one gets contaminated during an incident, each firefighter should have a second hood to use while the first is being washed.
The washing of your hoods is equally important because of the direct contact they have with the skin and the potential for them to be carrying cancer causing contaminants.
3. Practice effective PPE and self-decontamination protocols.
Once far enough away from the incident and while still on air, it is recommended that firefighters perform gross decontamination on all PPE using soapy water and a brush. After washing, PPE should be put in a sealed bag and placed in a compartment on the exterior of the apparatus.
Decontamination procedure should also be followed for any exposed areas of the body using wipes. Upon returning to the station, more thorough decontamination should be done to all PPE, equipment, and apparatus, alongside a “shower within the hour” protocol for responders.
4. Keep PPE, especially turnout gear, on the apparatus floor – never in living quarters.
As mentioned above, turnout gear is especially susceptible to carrying carcinogens. Even after being decontaminated, it should never be worn inside the fire station, except in the bay, gear storage, and decon areas.
5. Early detection is key.
As recommended by NFPA 1582, annual physicals can play an important role in the prevention of disease. The IAFC has published a report on this standard and the IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Initiative. Use their health road map as a resource for an in-depth look at issues firefighters face, including cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
6. Always document all fire and chemical exposures on incident reports.
Utilize your incident module to its full potential. Cancer often does not present itself until years after exposure, which is why it’s important to document all incidents in detail so that you can go back later and have a record of possible carcinogen exposures you may have been subject to. Utilize personal exposure reports like the one found on the last page of this cancer tool kit for firefighters.
7. Reduce your exposure to diesel exhaust from the fire apparatus.
To reduce your exposure to the chemicals from diesel exhaust, try opening the bay doors before the engine starts and keep them open when you return until after the engine is off.
In addition, station office and living area doors should always be kept closed and properly sealed. Departments should conduct apparatus checks outside if the engine needs to be running and use diesel exhaust containment/removal systems.
8. Implement cancer prevention training
All stations should implement cancer prevention education training. Fortunately, there are many resources out there to help you put a program together. Departments can start with the Lavender Ribbon Report that details many cancer prevention practices for firefighters, including ones from this blog.
Special Considerations for Firefighters
Another factor to be aware of if you are a volunteer firefighter is that volunteer-based departments have been shown to be at an even greater risk of cancer. The reason behind this is that volunteer departments often lack the resources needed to follow these best practices.
Often, volunteer departments don’t have the budget to purchase every firefighter a second set of PPE or have laundry machines on-site to clean them. For more recommendations specifically related to volunteer firefighters, check out this article.
In addition to following these best practices at work, firefighters should also implement healthy habits in their personal lives to lower their risk of cancer. This includes avoiding tobacco products that can compound their cancer risk and maintaining a healthy weight. One study found that firefighters have a 20-30% higher risk of getting liver cancer, which is then doubled by obesity.
As a firefighter, it’s your job to save the lives of others on a daily basis. However, you can’t do that job if you aren’t also taking care of yourself. Taking these recommendations and implementing them at your department can make a huge difference when it comes to the cancer risks associated with your job. We encourage each department to also do their own research on cancer prevention practices. Below are a list of other helpful resources for you fire station:
If you found this article useful, please take a moment to share it with your colleagues or post it to your favorite social networking site by using the button below.
About the Author
Mark McKleroy has been in the fire service for approximately 31 years. McKleroy started out volunteering at his local fire department before moving to full-time. He progressed through the ranks to Assistant Chief where he worked for 32 years. McKleroy is also a paramedic and taught the paramedic program at a local community college for several years before becoming an instructor for the Alabama Fire College. McKleroy has been with Emergency Reporting since 2014 where he is the Training Manager.
 Jahnke, Sara A, et al. “GUIDE TO CANCER PREVENTION THROUGH PPE.” Globe Holding Company LLC, 1 Feb. 2016.