Where's My Protection?

Author- Pam Walrath; Environmental Industrial Hygienist, Research and Analysis Division

It was 1989 - I am on fires in the Klamath National Forest in California and we haven’t seen the sun going on at least 10 days now! The air quality is so thick with smoke you could cut it with a knife. I have been hacking up black crap from my lungs for a few days now and our Incident Commander told us the air quality is the equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day - so use your bandana’s, even while walking around fire camp, he warns. My friend Ann was on this fire with me and an EMT – she was concerned at how bad my coughing attacks were so decided to take me to the MASH tent- medical tent and have them administer oxygen. My lungs were so congested that they asked her to stay with me overnight to monitor my breathing. She said I stopped breathing twice during the evening and resuscitated me both times with CPR. I was flown out the next morning! Back home I literally had a pulmonary function test and two days of rest – I was shipped back out for the next fire after my two days of R and R.

In 1994 I began working in the Environmental field (hazardous materials arena) and was fit-tested for a half-face respirator to perform my field tasks while sampling these hazardous chemicals and materials. I remember vividly, wishing I had one of these when I fought fires so that my lungs would have been protected better than just a fabric bandana around my neck or havlock connected to my hardhat.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the regulation that protects the worker while performing work at your job and the regulation that I follow and enforce in my field of expertise for worker protection. It is crystal clear that this regulation also applies to the wildland firefighting community while being exposed to hazardous materials in the line of duty.

Structural firefighters wear Self-Containing Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) to perform their functions and are now using them or half-face respirators during the tear down phase which is the cleanup phase. Many toxins have burnt and continue to off-gas and/or volatilize while cleaning up the house fire debris and is no different for wildland firefighters that are involved with mopping up a structure that has burnt. Table Z in the OSHA regulation, (29 CFR 1910.1000) shows the limits for air contaminants; if any of the chemicals or contaminants that you may potentially have impact of or exposure to, are included in this table, then respiratory protection is required. The following at minimum, are on this list and an exposure potential for wildland firefighters:

·        Carbon dioxide                                        

·        Carbon monoxide

·        Benzene

·        Toluene                                         

·        Ethylbenzene

·        Xylene

·        Sulfur

·        Mercury

·        Asbestos

·        Tetraethyl lead – lead in gas

I have spoken to my local industrial distributors and a Certified Industrial Hygienist from 3M® to inquire what type of PPE would address some of the concerns that wildland firefighters face. Many if not all of the respirators have the protection factor for the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that may be off-gassing from materials burning.

In my experience the full-face respirator would address the poison ivy and poison oak fumes from the possibilities of it entering through a dermal (skin or eye) type of exposure.

My other concern was the rubber of the respirator getting too hot during fire line operations and the concerns from firefighters that it elevated their heart rate.

In my research I am finding the best alternatives to offer wildland firefighters in the equipment that is already designed by wildland firefighters and used in the field. It is my passion and personal mission to not have the same type of experience that I did as a young wildland firefighter of 21 years of age that almost took my life.  I considered and still do that wildland firefighting was my “best job” I have ever had. Respiratory protection is so accentual to keeping you at your best to get out there for the next fire.

This change for your protection can only be done by you and yours on your crew for each agency that is out there – Federal, State and Private Contractor. If you aren’t offered protection – ask for it. It is required by law (29 CFR 1910.134). I will have in the near future a plan that will be available for agencies – it is still under construction and I will inform when it is available.