Worcester Fire Fighters Dying at an Alarming Rate, Not From Fires
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
According to a report entitled “Dying for Work in Massachusetts: The Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces,” all three of Worcester’s reported deaths in 2013 were firefighters. Even more striking is that all three firefighters – as well as the nine total firefighters that died throughout Massachusetts – died because of work-related illnesses such as heart disease or cancer.
“Unfortunately, firefighters are exposed to a whole list of substantial and dangerous hazards,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH). “There are many biological, chemical, and ergonomic hazards as well as exposure to high heats and extreme stress levels which all can lead to various health problems later on in life.”
The report, which was prepared by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and MassCOSH, states that 19-percent of the deaths that occurred in Massachusetts in 2013 were firefighters, representing one of the largest concentrations of death for any occupation. Of the nine instances, four were attributed to work-related cancer and five were attributed to work-related heart disease.
Calling Attention to Workplace Issues
Chief among the goals of the “Dying for Work” report was to call attention to the various issues facing occupations in Massachusetts. For firefighters, the concern largely has to do with their work environment.
“By definition, if you are fighting a fire then you are jumping directly into a hazardous situation,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “Not only do you have fire hazards which are dangerous and deadly in their own right, but you also have to deal with exposures to chemicals and all of the other issues present when fighting a fire.”
Another danger of being a firefighter is that the workplace changes every day because every fire is at a new and often unfamiliar place. The report calls for increased OSHA safety measures in the workplace, but it is hard to regulate and monitor a work environment that is constantly changing and unknown until the fire starts.
“Assessing the work environment of a firefighter is a challenge,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “One step that could help to prevent some workplace related injuries and deaths for firefighters is doing a hazard assessment prior to entering a building. Implementing a better monitoring assessment for buildings could be helpful so that firefighters know of the dangers that they are encountering before entering the building.”
Goldstein-Gelb points out buildings that are unstable due to construction and buildings filled with hazardous chemicals as just two of many situations that if better monitored could lead to less injuries and deaths for firefighters. Ultimately, Goldstein-Gelb would like to see more preventative action than reaction taking place to help stop workplace related injuries and deaths before they occur.
“As an organization, we feel that preventative care is always a much more productive route than reactive care,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “Far too often people wait until a workplace injury or death occurs to do something to try to prevent another from happening in the future. As said before, firefighting is by definition a very hazardous job; we should be putting all of our resources together to try to stop these deaths and injuries from happening.”
A Firefighter’s Perspective
Firefighters are trained to be aware of the array of dangers that may face them while on the job. While death by fire is always an obvious concern, it is pointed out to those who take the Firefighter’s Oath that other dangers have the ability to present themselves.
“Firefighting is a very dangerous occupation,” said Deputy Chief Geoffrey Gardell, the Public Information Officer for the Worcester Fire Department. “The national life expectancy for a firefighter is seven years less than the average American. We are constantly exposed to a lot of hazards; carcinogens, fire, and even just the stress of the job alone are all factors. But then again, I think that when you take this job and swear to protect the public, you know the risks that you are throwing yourself into.”
Firefighters may be aware of the risks that they are signing up for, but a combination of all of the factors can easily wear a firefighter out. Fire and chemical exposures present some of the larger immediate threats to a firefighter, but physical and mental stress can often lead to heart disease which according to the U.S. Fire Administration is the leading cause of firefighter deaths.
“The number one issue for firefighters is stress,” said Gardell. “It is a job full of physical and mental stress. Sleep patterns for firefighters are always irregular. You could be sitting down and having a relaxing lunch and then all of a sudden having to run off to a three-alarm fire. It is a job that is constantly demanding you to be ready for something to happen.”
Another concern that fire fighters face is working with the proper equipment. Gardell says the Worcester Fire Department has state-of-the-art equipment that is well monitored and maintained, but not all fire departments are afforded such luxury, especially towns and cities with large percentages of volunteer firefighters or towns that have smaller departments.
“I think that the industry has been slow to develop better technology for breathing apparatuses,” said Edward Kelly, the President of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts. “When working hard at the scene of a fire, the air supply might only last eight to twelve minutes. There are times where a firefighter has to work without their mask because although the air supply has run out, the job still needs to be done.”
Working without a mask presents a huge concern for firefighters because of smoke and other carcinogens. Because of the changing materials that make up the average household in the United States, the threat of carcinogen exposure has greatly increased over the years.
“Changes in many manufacturing processes through the years have in turn changed the makeup of the average household and greatly increased the volume of hazardous and dangerous chemicals and substances that a firefighter may encounter,” said John Dwyer, President of the Worcester chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). “Many of these substances are carcinogens and others are extremely dangerous in their normal state and more so when exposed to heat. Some chemicals are also reactive to water which is a unique characteristic of interest to firefighters.”
The idea of firefighters being exposed to harmful materials is not a new trend, which is why people have long believed that firefighters have had increased risks of developing cancer and other deadly diseases.
In an attempt to determine whether cancer and firefighting have a direct correlation, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) has been conducting a study titled “The Fire Fighter Cancer Study” since 2010. Just wrapping up the first phase of the two phase study in November of 2013, NIOSH first looked at whether or not firefighters had an increased cancer fatality rate than the average citizen.
“Our first phase dealt with determining whether or not firefighters have higher rates of cancers than the general public, which we found that they did,” said Robert Daniels, Director of the NIOSH “Fire Fighter Cancer Study”. “We noticed that firefighters had higher concentrations of respiratory, digestive, and urinary cancer as well as mesothelioma.”
Although data shows a higher concentration of cancer in the firefighting community, Daniels cautions people against immediately drawing conclusions. Because of the Presumptive Disability Law in Massachusetts, Daniels says, certain cancers could be considered workforce illnesses without having proof that they were a direct result of working as a firefighter.
“There is an increased risk, but it is hard to prove with certainty that cancer and other illnesses were caused by occupational hazards,” said Daniels. “We have definitely seen data from our study that supports the notion that firefighters could be exposed to materials that increase their risk for cancer. Phase two of the study will hopefully be completed by the end of this year and will look to see if there is a correlation between firefighters with high exposures to carcinogens and increased cancer rates.”
Related Slideshow: New England Worker Fatalities
Below are the top 25 deadliest jobs in New England, based on the absolute number of fatalities for each occupation from 2008 to 2012, the most recently available year. Along with fatality figures, the median salary for each position, the overall occupation category, and the number of on-the-job deaths for each category are included. Where necessary, descriptions of each job are also provided. Data was obtained from the New England office of the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics in Boston. Note that data for 2012 remains preliminary. It will be finalized later this spring.
Number of Fatalities: 6
Median Salary: $39,980 to $54,560
Occupation Group: Community and social service occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 12
Note: Category encompasses several specific occupations, including social workers in the child, family and school, health care, mental health and substance abuse fields. Because of insufficent data a breakdown by specific occupation was not available.
First-Line Supervisors of Retail Sales Workers
Number of Fatalities: 8
Median Salary: $36,820
Occupation Group: Sales and related occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 26
Note: First-line supervisors directly oversee and coordinate activities of retail sales workers in an establishment or department. Duties may include management functions, such as purchasing, budgeting, accounting, and personnel work, in addition to supervisory duties.
Number of Fatalities:8
Median Salary: $22,670
Occupation Group: Transportation and material moving occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 167
Note: Includes those who drive trucks or other vehicles over established routes or within an established territory and sell or deliver goods, such as food products, including restaurant take-out items, or pick up or deliver items such as commercial laundry. May also take orders, collect payment, or stock merchandise at point of delivery. Includes newspaper delivery drivers. Excludes Coin, Vending, and Amusement Machine Servicers and Repairers and Light Truck or Delivery Services Drivers.
Number of Fatalities: 9
Median Salary: $73,280
Occupation Group: Transportation and material moving occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 167
Note: Category includes those who pilot and navigate the flight of fixed-wing aircraft on nonscheduled air carrier routes, or helicopters. Requires Commercial Pilot certificate. Includes charter pilots with similar certification, and air ambulance and air tour pilots. Excludes regional, National, and international airline pilots.
Number of Fatalities: 12
Median Salary: $35,250
Occupation Group: Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations
Total Occupation Fatalities: 64
Note: Fallers use axes or chainsaws to fell trees using knowledge of tree characteristics and cutting techniques to control direction of fall and minimize tree damage.
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