The loss of life, injury, and property damage caused by fires earns media headlines. But in the aftermath, the people tasked with handling the charred remains require fire restoration safety clothing due to the risks on-site.
There are approximately 346,000 house fires in the U.S. during any given year, resulting in $7.3 billion in property damage, 2,620 civilian fatalities, and 11,070 injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). And in 2021, the country suffered 58,733 wildfires that destroyed 7.13 million acres, and California alone saw 3,629 structures burn to the ground, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
After firefighters and first responders complete their extinguishing and rescue missions, restoration crews enter a dangerous environment with unknown hazards. The toxic materials and airborne particles that persist after a house or commercial building fire can prove deadly without appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and disposable clothing. The use of PPE for fire damage cleanup is the first line of defense against unnecessary illness and fatalities.
What is Fire Residue?
Determined efforts have helped reduce the number of firefighters injured through increasingly effective PPE. But a notion persists that the ashes and fire-damaged materials that require cleanup and removal are not as harmful. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Fire residue contains wide-reaching known and unknown contaminants that can severely impact a restoration worker’s health and wellness. The common traits shared by burned buildings and wildfires involve the release of gases, smoke, soot, and tiny airborne particles.
Given the number of hazardous household products and toxic building materials found in older structures, the use of PPE for fire restoration should be considered as mandatory as it is for firefighters.
Unfortunately, not enough is being done to provide certified fire restoration safety clothing for cleanup crews who encounter the following fire residue toxins.
- Asbestos: The most notorious cancer-causing agent was used as a common building material from the 1950s through the 1980s. It remains a danger in homes built during this period.
- Carbon-Based Materials: When burned, a wide variety of carbon items produce hydrogen, ammonia, tar, and nitrogen oxides that can harm fire cleanup workers.
- PVC: This popular building material releases hydrogen chloride, phosgene, dioxin, chloromethane, bromomethane, and halocarbons, when exposed to flames.
- Sulfur: This fire byproduct can go airborne in smoldering materials, causing hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and thiols, to enter the lungs.
What are the Long-Term Health Effects to People in Fire Restoration?
It’s important to understand that PPE for fire restoration does not only apply to ashes and scorched structures. When firefighters extinguish a blaze, the water and fire suppressants start a secondary health-risk cycle.
Buildings are typically sealed when possible, and that allows hazardous molds to quickly spread. What fire restoration workers face daily is a toxin-rich environment that grows more dangerous by the day. These rank among the long-term health effects resulting from short- and long-term exposure to fire residue.
- Breathing Conditions: The inhalation of airborne particles can have an immediate or delayed impact on a worker’s respiratory system. The fumes from the smoldering remains of plastics, pressure-treated lumber, carpets, household cleaning products, vinyl siding, and countless others can damage the lungs and other organs.
- Heavy Metal Poisoning: Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury may be present in a burned structure. Skin contact and other forms of contact can result in heavy metal poisoning. Restoration technicians without adequate PPE for fire damage cleanup may experience symptoms that include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, skin lesions, blurred vision, nerve damage to the hands and feet, headaches, chills, or general weakness.
- Cancer: When a fire restoration specialist inhales asbestos, the microscopic fibers become trapped in their lungs and other organs. A condition can take decades to manifest following exposure. While asbestos ranks among the most known cancerous agents, others are present that can enter the eyes, penetrate the skin, or be swallowed.
- Mold Sickness: The mold growths that occur in the wet ashes and soot can cause allergic reactions. Common mold spores bring about symptoms that include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, itching, coughing, wheezing,difficulty breathing, headache, and fatigue. Over time, a fire restoration professional can suffer reduced resistance and experience increasingly severe health conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns certain molds produce dangerous “mycotoxins.”
Even the impact of low-level exposure to toxins over time results in diminished health and wellness. That’s why workers must have a complete inventory of disposable PPE for fire damage cleanup.
Dangers of Fire Residue
The destructive health conditions caused by exposure to post-fire restoration are well documented. Yet the dangers associated with fire residue fail to receive the heightened safety measures used to protect working people against carcinogens such as asbestos and others that may be present.
For example, too many companies select fire restoration safety clothing that can be rinsed down and reused. This poor health and safety practice opens the door to lingering residue and cross-contamination.
A worker exiting the environment can transfer toxic agents to street clothes and carry particles home to family members. The result of fire residue making its way into family vehicles, laundry hampers, and eventual contact with children represents an avoidable risk. That’s why the highest possible safety measures and best practices must be in place for a fire restoration team.
Safety Measures that Reduce Health and Safety Risks
Fire restoration is typically classified as a type of hazmat work that requires a thorough assessment of the environment and a plan to integrate strategies and equipment that eliminate exposure to residue.
Damaged buildings usually call for a structural engineer to make recommendations about securing walls, floors, and ceilings before workers enter the space. It’s also common to have a qualified individual evaluate the site to identify known toxins. Once known risks have been determined, the following protective measures and best practices are commonly recommended.
- Isolation Barriers: These structures separate areas that may be contaminated from designated safe spaces. Isolating toxic chemicals, mold spores, and airborne particles reduces the threat these contaminants can cause to workers and the possibility of them spreading to the community at large.
- Tool Usage: When gas-powered tools are used in enclosed areas, proper ventilation is a necessity. Workers are also tasked with using breathable masks, respirators, and other PPE for fire restoration. All tools must be cleaned and sanitized following usage.
- Proper Hygiene: Fire residue can cling to boots, clothing, and skin. Safety dictates that workers have a designated area to strip off disposable PPE for fire damage cleanup and wash thoroughly. A separate area for storing and changing into street clothes greatly reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
- Air Scrubbers: Portable filtration systems reduce the number of airborne particles that can be inadvertently inhaled or cling to disposable fire restoration safety clothing.
- HEPA Filtered Equipment: High-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters are considered the standard in high-risk environments such as fire damage sites. Organizations that provide workers with HEPA-filtered equipment protect against known and unknown health dangers.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) strongly recommends fire restoration workers possess a properly fit-tested respirator that meets HEPA standards. The occupational safety organization also recommends disposable clothing and PPE for fire damage cleanup based on invasive and non-invasive cleanup tasks.
PPE Recommended for Non-Invasive Cleaning
The NIOSH recommendations for brief inspections and cleanup of less toxic peripheral areas are largely based on assessments made by professionals. Spaces that do not show visible fire residue or smoldering materials require minimal PPE for fire restoration, which includes the following.
- Securely Fitting N100 Filtering Face Piece
- Eye Protection such as Goggles or Face Shield
- Tear-Resistant Disposable Coveralls with Attached Hoods
- Disposable Boot Covering Accessories
- Disposable Protective Gloves
It’s essential that workers are educated about cleanliness and best practices. Removing disposable PPE for even brief moments while on-site can lead to contamination.
What PPE is Recommended for Invasive Restoration Activities?
Working for hours in spaces with prevalent toxins and structures that have sustained fire damage poses a heightened health and safety risk. Recommendations for fire restoration specialists include the following.
- Hard Hats
- Washable Safety Boots Covered by Disposable PPE
- Securely Fitting N100 Filtering Face Piece that Uses HEPA Cartridges
- Tear-Resistant Disposable Coveralls with Attached Hoods
- Disposable Protective Gloves
It’s crucial the disposable clothing and PPE for fire restoration fit properly and can be secured by zippers. Coveralls with integrated hoods, shoe coverings, and elastic wrist and ankle protections provide the protection needed in high-risk environments.