On this page
- What should I know before reading about this occupation?
- What, briefly, does a fire fighter do?
- What are some health and safety hazards associated with being a fire fighter?
- Are there any long-term health effects of being a fire fighter?
- What are some general safe work practices to know?
- Where can I get more information?
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:
- Respond to fire alarms, incidents (automobile, industrial, aviation, etc.), building collapses, acts of nature (tornadoes, floods, etc.) and other emergencies.
- Rescue victims.
- Control fire using various equipment and methods (axes, water, chemical extinguishers, ladders, vehicles, boats, etc.).
- Provide first aid.
- Provide safety education to the public.
Specialized teams may be organized to respond to emergencies involving specific hazardous products or situations.
- While helping victims, there is possible exposure to contagious and infectious diseases including blood borne diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis B and C.
- 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:
- Oxygen depletion - 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 other chemicals, products, pharmaceuticals and medicines, including opioids.
- Working with compressed gases (e.g., self-contained breathing apparatus)
- Situations where physical demands involve very strenuous work, force, repetition, awkward postures and prolonged activities, often under extreme conditions, including:
- Wearing heavy equipment, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and personal protective equipment which may require more effort to perform the same tasks.
- Heat stress
- Excessive noise levels
- Ultraviolet radiation
- Extreme temperatures (both cold and heat)
- Extreme working conditions
- Danger of driving at high speeds, often in difficult traffic or weather condition
- 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.
- Fires can also create dangerous situations such as:
- Sudden ignition of products creating flashover.
- Backdraft where air is introduced to an area that is superheated and oxygen starved.
- Working on ladders
- Falls from heights
- Slips, trips and falls
- Risk of injury from the various locations where fire department may be called to: explosion, unstable structures and surfaces, falling objects; or working at heights or near traffic, water, confined spaces, large crowds, violent situations, etc.
- Working with chainsaws or similar equipment
- Exposure to serious traumatic events (or consequence of the event) resulting in stress or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Work shifts or extended work days
- Workplace violence or harassment, and harassment from the public
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has evaluated the carcinogenicity of occupational exposure of a firefighter as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) based on sufficient evidence for cancer in humans. IARC concluded that there was:
- sufficient evidence for the following cancer types: mesothelioma and bladder cancer.
- limited evidence for the following cancer types: colon cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, melanoma of the skin, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma
Fire fighters also develop:
- back injuries and other strains.
- diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis.
- cardiovascular disease due to a multitude of toxic substances when fighting a fire. For example, carbon monoxide exposure is directly linked with cardiac toxicity.
Fire fighters will need to know:
- the correct routine practices procedures to prevent blood borne pathogen infection. (e.g., AIDS, hepatitis B and C).
- hand washing and routine practices
- proper selection, use, maintenance and storage of personal protective equipment (PPE), where appropriate.
- selection of footwear.
- prevention of needlestick injuries.
- manual material handling (lifting) techniques.
- information about shiftwork.
- how to work alone (general information) and working alone with patients.
- working safely on ladders.
- how to work safety with compressed gases.
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:
- your health and safety committee or representative.
- your union.
- your safety department.
- your supervisor or manager.
- check with your local library.
- your local government department responsible for health and safety.
General information is available in OSH Answers or through the CCOHS person-to-person Inquiries Service.
- Fact sheet last revised: 2022-09-29