As smoke from large scale bushfires across Australia impacts people’s physical and psychological health, the Australian Institute of Health & Safety (AIHS) has called for urgent evaluation which explores the proper types and use of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) by rural firefighters, before the next fire season, to contribute to greater consistency in good practices from region to region.
Institute Chief Executive David Clarke said “Everybody will agree that our volunteer firefighters must have appropriate and well maintained personal protective equipment to fight fires. Their lives and their ability to protect our rural properties, country towns and national parks are at stake.”
Responding to recent reports of firefighters privately sourcing their own equipment, Mr Clarke said: “We do not think there is a widespread lack of RPE for firefighters, and as we understand it, the workplace health and safety regulators in each state and territory do their part to check on compliance with minimum standards.”
“However, our major concern is that those standards appear to be different from one state to another, they are being applied differently, and we simply don’t have the evidence to be sure that they are all appropriate,” Mr Clarke said.
Mr Clarke went on to say that the issue was not a simple one. “When it comes to deciding what is suitable respiratory protection for firefighters, context is important. Rural firefighters deal with fires in forests, farmlands and country towns. While wood smoke is obvious, forests can also produce toxic gases, and we don’t always know what chemicals are in man-made burning structures.”
“Also, firefighters shifts don’t just last 8 to 12 hours – they may be on or around the fire ground for days at a time, making choices about respiratory protection complex. Any best approach needs to be sophisticated enough to involve options for firefighters, and risk assessments in each fire situation” he said.
“This issue will not go away. Bushfires are more prevalent and impactful than ever before, and we know that in the coming decades this trend will continue, and grow worse. The smoke may come and go, but it will come – and more often, and the effects will multiply” Mr Clarke said.
Mr Clarke went on to say “we need research and evaluation now, before the next fire season which answers the question: What is the appropriate respiratory protection standard for rural firefighters in different firefighting scenarios? To be effective this research should involve the rural fire services, WHS regulators, relevant government agencies, the appropriate professional institutes, and led by expert researchers from an Australian university or universities. This evidence must then be used to inform relevant policy across Australia.”
Article originally published by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.