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Fire fighting as an occupation arose out of the need to protect citizens mainly from the risks of fires, but the present fire fighters’ job extends beyond simply fire fighting to all kinds of emergency preparedness and response. Due to the nature of their work, fire fighters face serious and direct occupational health risks that are unique only to this line of work. As expected, the principal hazard faced by fire fighters is fire and the resultant destruction it causes. Despite the use of protective equipment, heat presents a serious health challenge as protection from it faces great technical constraints and burns; therefore, heat is one of the major health problems. Thermal protection clothing is made of several layers of protective materials and air gaps that prevent heat from reaching the body; however, most of this heat is stored within the protective layers. Burns are caused when the accumulated heat in the layers of the protective clothing comes into contact with the body because of movement. Burns also occur when moisture trapped within the protective clothing heats up. This moisture is a result of sweat and water sprays. Research done by the Fire Research Foundation shows that these burns occur mainly under the armpits, the upper and fore arms, the chest area, shoulders and thighs.
Exposure to smoke and toxic chemical gases during fire fighting operations is a cause of several health problems of firefighters. These are lung and heart problems, cancer, eye and respiratory tract irritations. It is an unwritten rule that oxygen masks are used only when smoke is visible, but, in actual sense, it is not only smoke that is present in fire but a host of other toxic gaseous by-products caused by combustion of different materials. Toxic gases that are encountered are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, and hydrogen chloride gas just to mention a few. These toxic gases lead to coughing, sore throat, excessive sputum, bronchitis, chest tightness, asphyxiation, pneumonia, lung inflammation and damage. Lung function also decreases after exposure to smoke, and this can last for 18 hours. Serious exposure can lead to complete loss of lung function and hence death. Heart diseases are caused by the resultant fumes depending on the nature of the combusting materials. Most materials in an average house emit toxic fumes when burning. Materials such as plastics, asbestos, and ceiling construction products also emit toxic fumes. Exposure to burning plastic fumes has been observed to lead to premature ventricular contractions and cardiac arrhythmia. Inhalation of burning chlorine adversely affects the supply of oxygen to coronary arteries which this is fatal. Smoke and other fumes can also exacerbate pre-existing heart-related conditions.
Fire fighting is also a very stressful occupation both physically and psychologically. It requires a lot of physical activity with exposure to heat, smoke, and falling objects as well as the pressure to save lives. Stress interferes with the normal functioning of the body. High levels of repeated stress degrade the immune system making fire fighters susceptible to a lot of other diseases. Both physical and mental stress also leads to heart attack and coronary artery disease which account for 45% of fire fighters’ deaths according to the U.S Fire Administration research. Hypertension is also very common in fire fighters due to stress and the consequences which if not taken care of cause aneurysms and stroke. It has been established that apart from heart disease, stress causes insomnia, ulcers, and mental dis-orientation. Health problems of the muscles and joints are inherent in this career. It is common to see torn muscles and ligaments, broken bones and dislocated joints. Some of these conditions usually lead to permanent disability
Another serious health problem faced by fire fighters is cancer as they are in contact in their line of duty with many compounds that are categorized as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The probability of getting skin cancer increases with the number of working years due to exposure to fumes and soot which contain polycyclic hydrocarbons which are known to be skin carcinogenic. Exposure to asbestos used for wall and ceiling construction is thought to cause mesothelioma. Other forms of cancer that fire fighters are likely to get due to the nature of their job are prostrate cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and testicular cancer as a result of exposure to chloroform, benzene, styrene, and formaldehyde.