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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. The demands of fire fighting can be sporadic and unpredictable with intermittent periods of intense physical and psychological stress. 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 emergencies involving specific hazardous products or situations.
Hazards typically fall into one of six general categories as listed below. For more information on the hazard categories, prevention, or how to work safely with a chemical or material, click on the links 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).
Exposure to other chemicals, products, pharmaceuticals and medicines, including exposure to opiods may be possible if assisting victims or when providing first aid.
There are many situations where physical demands involve very strenuous work, force, repetition, awkward postures and prolonged activities, often under extreme conditions. These include:
Fire fighters will also work and train wearing 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. The heat stress and exertion can cause fatigue.
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 addition to the heat of the fire.
When responding to a fire emergency, there are many situations (e.g. the fire itself structures breaking, unstable floors and falling objects), where there is a risk of injury. Falls from heights are also common.
Fires can also 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. Please also see our OSH Answers document on tips for winter driving.
Fire fighters also have a high risk of burns, especially those who enter the burning building/structure first and those who are holding the front end of the nozzle. Dry hot air typically is not hazardous, but steam or wet hot air can cause burns. Radiant heat is also an issue, and burns can occur for extended exposure.
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 are long periods of quiet or routine, interrupted abruptly by periods of intense stress or activity.
However, it is important to note the positive aspects of being a fire fighter. It is a highly respected profession and highly valued in the community. Also, there is usually a high sense of team membership.
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 develop:
Under further study are:
(Source: Firefighting Hazards. T. L. Guidotti. International Hazard Datasheets on Occupations (HDO). Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. Geneva: International Labour Office)
NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, USA) reports that firefighters are at risk of on-duty or sudden cardiovascular events or deaths (which includes heart attacks and coronary heart disease). NIOSH states that a combination of personal (age, gender, family history, diabetes, hypertension, smoking, high blood cholesterol, obesity and lack of exercise) and workplace factors (heavy exertion, heat stress, high noise levels, shift work/overtime, and exposure to carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, particulate matter, and environmental tobacco smoke) are associated with these events.
Because of the wide variety of hazards a fire fighter may encounter, extensive training and experience are often the best way to prevent injury.
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.