Firefighters: Feeling the Heat

Monday, May 12, 2014
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The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the European Trade Union Institute have jointly published a report entitled “Firefighters: Feeling the Heat,” based on questionnaire responses from EPSU affiliates. 

Most of us give little thought to firefighters’ working conditions. The head-turning sights and sounds of "blues and twos" as scarlet engines rush high visibility-clad crews to fires tend to overshadow what they do before, during and after. 

Firefighting is a risky business, yet firefighters’ health and lives can be better protected, as long as the right financial, material and human resources are put at their disposal. The complex relation, highlighted in the report, between effective firefighting and protecting workers underlines the importance of trade union involvement in health and safety in the sector.

In order to repond both efficiently and professionally to a fire, road accident or flood, an “emergency response chain” has to be set in motion. Every link in this chain is vital. The employment status of firefighters varies greatly: there exists both professional and voluntary firefighters in the public sector, military firefighters (both professionals and volunteers), privately-employed fighfighters for at-risk sites (such as airports, chemical plants and nuclear facilities), and firefighters that are seasonally employed during summer in Mediterranean countries. However, the number of firefighters is frequently too small to provide a consistently high quality service and, at the same time guarantee, good working conditions. In France and Spain, volunteers on precarious contracts are being employed to replace retiring professional firefighters. In Finland, an ageing workforce is the main concern. 

The number of female firefighters in very low in every European country. The demanding working conditions partially explain this situation, but studies have consistently uncovered a persistent macho culture that impedes women's integration into the fire service. 

If firefighters are to be able to fight fires effectively, they need equipment that will protect their health and safety. In most European countries staff representatives are consulted before purchasing equipment. However, in Germany, Belgium, Spain and Finland these consultations sometimes either do not take place or are far from systematic. 

Most tasks performed by firefighters, with the exception of preventative services, are considered 'high risk.' The number of deaths on the job speaks for itself: in France, between 1992 and 2002, on average 20 firefighters died every year. In the UK, a firefighter has died very four months since 1978. On top of these shocking figures, the number of accidents and work-related illnesses must be taken into account. 

In the line of service, firefighters are confronted by the risks associated with extreme heat, namely maladies induced by high temperatures, such as heat exhaustion or  heat stress. On top of these, there are risks from the toxins and thermal radiation from the smoke, which can have long-term effects such as cancer. The list of dangers gets even longer when you add physical and psychosocial risks. 

The standards for personal-protection equipment are set by working groups and technical committees. The habitual absence of staff representatives in these discussions has led to the production of inappropriate, inadequate and inefficient equipment because the real-life use of such gear is not taken into account. Safety harnesses that are incompatible with long jackets is just one example of this.  This type of  standardisation may sound very technical, but it is a very effective way of these workers' health and safety, by ensuring the use of products and equipment that meet the demands of the work on the ground.  It is key that trade unions involve themselves in setting these standards. 

Firefighters must know themselves both physically and psychologically, so that they can be an effective part of their team. Younger recruits benefit from both physical and psychological strength, while older firefighters have the hands-off experience. As such, the team is reinforced by the strength of the former and the skills of the latter. 

In place of a culture of risk, a culture of health and safety has to be fostered in the sector. 

To read the full report on firefighters' health and safety click here, available in English, French, German and Spanish.