PPE use and unsafe actions by firefighters
What causes firefighters to take unsafe actions related to personal protective equipment (PPE) use — even though they know they should be doing the opposite? A team of researchers led by Drexel University’s Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends recently set out to understand why this occurs and what the fire service can do to fix it.1
I mean, we’re firemen, we don’t like to be known as being overly safe I guess.
— Research focus group participant
Firefighters are at increased risk of toxic exposures through inhalation of particulate matter, carcinogenic products and gases. Despite recognition of these risks, it is not uncommon for firefighters to ignore PPE policies, such as not removing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) during overhaul. Firefighters know how to do their job safely but they sometimes choose not to engage in safety behaviors. Why?
Barriers to PPE use
…when I first started working within the fire department,…I put my new turn-outs on, and they were like, … we’ve gotta get you into a fire and get your turn-outs all dirty, because you look brand new.
— Research focus group participant (on how the appearance of clean gear represents inexperience)
Researchers found the leading reasons for PPE non-compliance were:
- Firefighter identity – Acceptance of group cultural norms (e.g., what it means to work as a “real” smoke-breathing firefighter) as opposed to acknowledged safety standards.
- Goal seduction – In certain situations, firefighters are led to prioritize being “first-in” over their own safety, e.g., violating driving protocols or not taking time to put on PPE in order to get to the incident more quickly.
- Situation aversion – Firefighters may be led away from safe choices because they are inconvenient or uncomfortable or they think that choosing to be safe by wearing their PPE will invite ridicule and harassment from peers.
Ways to PPE empowerment
- Individual will – An individual firefighter’s knowledge of occupational risks can lead them to comply with PPE use, despite these other pressures. When firefighters receive a solid training foundation in safe practices and the potential risks of their work they are better prepared to resist negative pressures.
- Organizational solidarity – Firefighters are more inclined to wear their PPE when leaders set a personal example, and promote and embrace safety policies organizationally.
Training and safety officers and department leaders are encouraged to read the complete research article to better understand when PPE use is practiced and neglected and to apply this knowledge to improving their department’s safety culture.