TRAINING SAFELY:Oct. 05
Respiratory protection: not just for firefighting anymore
December 13, 2007
By Jeff Weber
Respiratory protection has received a lot of attention in the past little while. Since the renewal of CSA standard Z94 and the NFPA 1981, 1852 and 1404 standards, a new awareness has dawned in taking care of our breathing tracts. Z94 in Canada is a standard that all employers must follow for the protection of their workers’ health.
For the most part, the fire service has been diligent in providing the highest level of protection. Respiratory protection doesn’t just mean SCBA, it means all methods of protecting the body from an inhalation hazard. It may mean N95 masks for medical calls. It may mean APR respirators to just filter the air that is present. It may mean supplied air respirators for jobs requiring extended work time. Respiratory protection is anything that protects the employee from a respiratory hazard.
Respiratory protection doesn’t just include the equipment that is provided to protect a worker. It also includes the maintenance and records of the equipment that is being used. This doesn’t just include the SCBAs, but also includes the air cylinders, the air compressor and the filtering system. It even includes the quality of the air that is taken into the cylinder for use. If a department is following the Z94 standard to the letter of the law, there should be no worries about the air we breathe through our SCBAs.
Why, then, are there so many reports out there on fire department personnel getting rare diseases, or suffering from lung and inhalation diseases? Why are there reports dating back to 1959 studying the mortality of firefighters in relation to inhalation hazards? The acceptance and use of SCBA in the fire service has grown in the past 20 years. There are very few that don’t protect themselves now during fire operations. Why does it seem that we are still being exposed?
It seems simple now, doesn’t it? What are the hazards that we protect ourselves from at a fire? Think way back to when you were a new recruit. Some of our first training told us that there are four common respiratory hazards present at a fire: heat, smoke, oxygen deficiency, and toxins. The biggest and most present of the toxins of course is carbon monoxide.
There are clues that tip us off to two of these hazards. This is simple because we can see it and we can feel it. There is heat present – that is bad for my lungs. I can’t breathe that and live. There is smoke present that I can see. I know it is bad for my lungs. By virtue of association, we can assume that because we know that combustion is happening, oxygen is being consumed and carbon monoxide is being produced. It all works together. Heat release, toxin release, smoke release, and all that releasing eats up the available oxygen.
Without a clue
What happens though when we don’t have the clues that indicate there is a hazard? How about a hazardous materials incident, for example? We may not be able to see a chemical like chlorine in the air, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. So we use detector technology to show what is in the air. These devices are very good at what they do, as long as they are maintained to ensure the device will give accurate amounts of whatever chemical it is measuring in the atmosphere.
Let’s return to the fire scene now. During the fire there are great clues present that indicate respiratory protection is necessary, but after the sensory clues are gone, we have nothing to tell us that there may be bad products of combustion left in the air. After the fire is extinguished, there is no heat and visibility has improved because the smoke has been vented – the clues that tipped us before are gone. We now have to make a decision. When is it acceptable to stop wearing our SCBA? When do we allow ourselves to lower our respiratory protection? That may have been the difference years ago. We assumed because the sensory clues were gone that the hazards were all gone. What do we do now to tell us that the atmosphere okay? We use atmospheric testing devices that tell us what is present in the air.
Is air monitoring enough?
Air monitoring devices are great pieces of equipment; they do their job wonderfully. There are limitations though, that we as firefighters need to be aware of. In most cases, the electronic devices that are available today will show three or four chemicals at a time. The most common configuration of sensors for the fire service is oxygen, carbon monoxide, combustible or explosive gases, and hydrogen sulphide. Right away the hydrogen sulphide sensor is of little use at a fire scene. That leaves the combustibles, carbon monoxide and oxygen. So now our sensor tells us that oxygen is present in the air in sufficient quantities, carbon monoxide has dropped to acceptable levels, and the combustibles have dropped to a point that they are not a concern. Is the fire scene atmosphere now good enough for us to doff our SCBA? Can we now go without respiratory protection?
This is about the time that we are now starting overhaul operations. It is also about the time that we start to do investigation procedures to determine the cause of the fire. Anyone that has done overhaul operations knows it can be gruelling, dirty work, pulling down ceilings and walls looking for spot fires, removing insulation and other building materials, as well as extinguishing and removing furnishings. Removing a cumbersome, heavy SCBA is always a welcomed relief. Overhaul operations and investigations can take long periods of time as well. All this time we could be working in an unknown atmosphere. Sure we know that there is enough oxygen, and there is little concern over carbon monoxide exposure, but what else is there?
What is there?
Chemicals that have permeated into the walls are now being leeched out slowly back into the atmosphere. Dusts, such as asbestos in older buildings, and other particulates are distributed into the air by the violent action of overhaul and investigations. What about chemicals that we are not measuring? Is there a possibility that they are still present in concentrations high enough to cause problems? Even if the products of combustion are present, but not in high enough concentrations to be alarming, shouldn’t we be concerned with any amount of exposure over a period of a career. Wouldn’t the presence of any amount be enough of an incentive to continue to wear a SCBA?
If I said we were going to start pumping benzene into the air you breathe in your workplace, but it was going to be below the acceptable standard that the province allows, wouldn’t you be upset at the needless exposure? Wouldn’t you be asking for protection? Benzene is present at all fires, and is a known human carcinogen. What about asbestos, which contributes to lung cancers and asbestosis; hydrogen cyanide, which is used in gas chambers; or formaldehyde, dioxides of sulphur and nitrogen, which turn to acids when they touch moist areas like your lungs. What about another particulate that isn’t of any particular type like the dust and soot that penetrate your lungs causing irritation? What about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons? What if I started dumping all of that into the air you breathe all the time? These are just small exposures, nothing that is going to hurt you. Your body can take care of this and get rid of it. Why would I expose anyone needlessly? Why would you expose yourself needlessly?
Strategies for protection
Here are some strategies. Make it your practice to comply.
1. Concern yourself with respiratory protection. If you’re in a fire scene rummaging around, performing overhaul duties, or investigation duties, respiratory protection should still be one of your primary health concerns.
2. Use the protective equipment that is provided. If all you have is SCBA, then use it.
3. Use your multi-gas detectors to determine when there is enough oxygen and that carbon monoxide has subsided to a point where you can switch to a filter style air purifying respiratory (APR). Make sure that you have the appropriate filters for the type of exposure that you are in. And no, an N95 mask is not an APR.
4. If in doubt, use SCBA. If your senses are giving you clues like something smells bad, or you are coughing, or your eyes are irritated, get protection. The scene can wait that long.
5. Incident commanders should rotate crews. Overhaul can sometimes be tougher, longer-lasting work than the original fire suppression. Ensure that you are rotating crews that are working overhaul in SCBA. Be prepared to use lots of air cylinders. Plan logistics around this fact.
6. Don’t draw assumptions. If the air looks clear, and there is no heat, and the detector says the oxygen and carbon monoxide is okay don’t blindly assume there is nothing there. Critics of the practice of wearing SCBA during overhaul will cite that studies show such low amounts of exposure. Any exposure is unacceptable when perfectly good protective equipment is available.
7. Education is key. Learn about respiratory protection. Learn what you are being exposed to. What do simple class A products release when burned? What does a modern couch release when it is burned? What do polystyrenes release? What do polyurethane products release? Where do I find these products? What are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons? Share your findings with your peers.
8. Realize your exposure time is part of the equation. Investigators are at the highest risk due to the time they spend in a fire scene. Firefighter exposure may only be a few hours, but an investigator may be in a scene for days. During that time, the atmospheric contaminants will subside, but the exposure is still possible.
9. Realize and understand all routes of entry into the body. Respiratory protection is great and is probably our biggest concern. Your eyes are a big concern as well. SCBA also protects your eyes, half face APRs don’t.
10. Develop procedures and stick to them. Departments should develop procedures to deal with respiratory protection during operations like overhaul and investigation. How does your department determine when to remove your SCBA? If there are four shifts, there may be four different answers.
11. Pre-plan and know your local building construction. Identify local buildings that may contain asbestos or other older building products. Realize asbestos comes in many forms and may have been present in small amounts in vermiculite fireproof coatings up until 1995. Polystyrene is being used in buildings more often again. Polyurethane foam insulation is sprayed on many surfaces in newer buildings.
12. Inspire others to practice respiratory protection. Don’t bow to peer pressure. Encourage others to protect themselves as well. It may be tough, but no one tells you when you have to step down your personal protective gear.
13. Document your exposures. I was recently shown a handy book by Librarian Judy Humphries at the Ontario Fire College Library for documenting hazardous materials exposures. Don’t discount the value in documenting what you are being exposed to. Make your own documentation in your notebook. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just keep a record of exposure so if something comes up in the future, reporting processes can be expedited quickly. Without a record you may be denied benefits. It will definitely be difficult to find all of the exposures 20 years down the road. Imagine trying to find all of these when your health is failing as well.
A catch phrase that is tossed around the firehall when we talk about risk is that, “we want all of us to go home after our shift.” In other words, if we work safely we will all get to go home instead of the hospital or worse. Practicing good respiratory protection during all operations at a fire scene may also contribute to you going home after shift for a long healthy career and a long life.
Capt. Jeff Weber is a 13-year veteran with the Kitchener (Ont.) Fire Dept. Promoted captain in 1999, in 2003 he moved from the suppression division to the training division. He is an active member of Kitchener’s high/low angle rope rescue committee, water rescue committee, hazardous materials committee, and confined space committee and has served on the joint occupational health and safety committee as an association member since January 1995. He holds a teacher/trainer of adults certificate from Conestoga College.
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