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28 October 2019

France: a status report on the occupational health of firefighters

Firefighters

ANSES, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety, has just published a report summarising current knowledge on the occupational health of firefighters.

The recent blaze at the Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen (23 September 2019) revealed to what extent the risks related to a firefighter’s work are often neglected. Although listed as an ‘upper-tier’ establishment under the Seveso Directive, some 900 firefighters tackled the blaze with insufficient protective equipment. According to information published by ‘Le Monde’ on 16 October 2019, a number of firefighters were given biological check-ups following the incident. For at least ten of them, blood tests showed abnormal results for the liver, with transaminase levels three times higher than normal, as well as disruptions in the renal function.

The ANSES report reveals that firefighters are exposed to a host of risk factors every day: exposure to chemical substances generally given off by products when on fire, as well as to biological or even physical agents. They are also confronted with organisational constraints such as shiftwork, and with psychosocial constraints such as exposure to violence. ANSES is drafting a report on the health risks associated with firefighting, taking stock of prevention measures.

In order to compile this report, ANSES organised an international consultation allowing the know-how of OSH agencies in different countries to be shared. Nine agencies from the United States, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Canada and the United Kingdom contributed to this survey.

The report does not stop at just reviewing our knowledge of the risks. It goes on to put forward recommendations aimed at improving prevention, as well as identifying fields in which we urgently need more systematic data. The report contains a summary of the prevention measures recommended in France and the other participating countries.

ANSES highlights the fact that current prevention measures regarding chemical risks are mainly focused on the active phase of fighting a blaze. However, the risk of exposure to toxic fumes remains present even when the fire has been put out, during the monitoring, investigation and clearing phases, as well as after the crews have returned to the fire station, in the form of contaminated equipment and vehicles, soot and the water used to fight the fire. Greater account needs to be taken of chronic risks.

As far as psychosocial risks are concerned, ANSES found that a number of firefighters enter the service guided mainly by the desire to fight fires, without being aware of the harsh reality of a job where the majority of calls involve providing emergency help to people. This gap in the perception of the work can engender suffering.

ANSES recommends the introduction of a database centralising the medical check-up data of professional, military and voluntary firefighters, as well as a monitoring of their activities, with a view to improving our knowledge on the health of French firefighters and the traceability of exposures and to identifying the activities with the greatest risks. It is important for such a database to be able to include all different activities of professional firefighters, even when they are working in a voluntary capacity.

Finally, ANSES recommends the effective introduction of medical check-ups for firefighters who have left the fire service, with a view to better preventing longer-term risks.

(Source: ANSES press release and report)

Read the ANSES report

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

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