This profile summarizes the common issues and duties for fire fighters. Fire fighters may be called to any number of settings or workplaces. It is impossible to predict all of the possible hazards a fire fighter may encounter. This summary focuses on the major job duties that most fire fighters (those fighting primarily structural fires) would have in common.
Main duties of a fire fighter include:
Specialized teams may be organized to respond to specific hazardous materials.
Hazards typically fall into one of six general categories as listed below. For more information on that issue, prevention, or how to work safely with a chemical or material, click on the links where provided throughout this document.
On the scene of a fire, there is exposure to various combustion products. The toxicity of the smoke depends greatly on the fuel (the materials or chemicals being burnt), the heat of the fire, and how much oxygen is available for combustion. Common combustion products include:
In addition, oxygen depletion from the air is common during fires. Hypoxia (the condition caused by little or no oxygen in the air) can result in a loss of physical performance, confusion and inability to escape.
Exposure to these hazards will also depend on the duties of the individual (e.g., those who enter the building during the fire versus those who clean-up after the fire has been extinguished).
There are many situations where physical demands involve force, repetition, awkward postures and prolonged activities. These include:
Fire fighters will also work and train using heavy equipment, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and personal protective equipment which may require more effort to perform the same tasks.
Heat stress is common. Heat may come from various sources including the fire and surroundings, but heat is also produced by the body during work (exercise). This effect can be worsened by the properties of the protective clothing and continuous physical exertion.
Fire fighters can be exposed to excessive noise levels.
Fire fighters are also required to work outdoors a great deal of the time. As a result, they may be exposed to extreme temperatures (both cold and heat).
In a fire situation, there are many situations where there a risk of injury (including the fire itself, structures breaking, unstable floors, falling objects). Falls from heights are also common.
Fires can create dangerous situations such as
Driving to the scene may also introduce increased potential for traffic accidents due to speeds travelled and road/weather conditions. General tips for winter driving are located here.
Fire fighters are exposed to critical events where there is often a grave or uncertain danger. Exposure to serious traumatic events (or consequence of the event) is another cause of stress. As with most emergency services, there will be long periods of quiet or routine interrupted abruptly by periods of intense stress or activity.
According to the International Labour Office (ILO), there have been some studies that have shown some long term health consequences from fire fighting. In other studies, similar connections could not be made. In either case, the need for working safely is extremely important.
Fire fighters may experience:
Under further study are:
(Source: Guidotti, T.L. Firefighting Hazards. In Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. 4th edition. Geneva: International Labour Office, 1998. Pages 95.4-95.9)
Because of the wide variety of hazards a fire fighter may encounter, the need for extensive training and the role of experience are often the best way to prevent injury.
Other preventative measures include:
Fire fighters will need to know:
All workers should:
Because of the wide variety of situations where a fire fighter may work, and the vast range of activities done and materials encountered, all situations cannot be covered in this document.
NOTE: If you have health concerns, ask your doctor or medical professional for advice.
If you have any questions or concerns about your specific workplace, you can ask one or more of the following for help:
General information is available in OSH Answers or through the CCOHS person-to-person Inquiries Service.
Document last updated on March 27, 2003