PPE can be a lazy OHS solution

One of the occupations with the clearest need for personal protective equipment (PPE) is that of a firefighter.  There are few other industries where PPE has such a high priority in workplace safety but sometimes PPE can still be forgotten.

A report on ABC radio and online  in Australia on 11 January 2010 shows that even in firefighting PPE may be forgotten.  The firefighter was the first one to take a fire hose to a shop fire and did not have on any breathing apparatus (BA).  His fully suited colleagues caught up with him and began fighting the fire.  It appears from this one media report that the firefighter kept his attention on fighting the fire rather than taking a break and putting on his BA.  Shortly after he began feeling unwell.


On 4 January 2010 the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) released a firefighting information package, based on an early September 2009 workshop, that includes some interesting information about firefighter health and safety.  A presentation by Dr Brad Aisbett of Deakin University discussed the issue of a firefighter being “fit for duty” a concept applicable to most workplaces with different criteria.  According to the pre-workshop reading:

“To preserve the health and safety of their personnel in such stressful working conditions, fire and emergency service agencies need to select and deploy firefighters who are ‘fit for duty’ – that is, personnel who have the necessary skills and physical conditioning to work safely and productively.  At present, the ‘fit for duty’ selection criteria rural fire agencies should use is not known.”

Dr Mary Omodei, an expert in cognitive psychology at Latrobe University, has been researching unsafe decision-making in the fire services for some time. (Dr Omodei spoke at the 2005 Safety In Action Conference in the stream chaired by Kevin Jones)  The 2009 presentation of her, and her colleagues’, research is summarised in an online slide show.

Below is an edited abstract for the 2005 paper:

“This paper introduces a post-incident interview protocol that targets the underlying psychological (human factors) causes of unsafe decisions.  Although developed as part of the Australasian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre for use in bushfire contexts, the protocol is one that can be adapted for use in a wide range of industry settings where persons work in safety-critical task environments.

The primary cause of 80% of accidents and near misses in North American wildland firefighting has been attributed to human factors.  Such human factors range the individual (e.g., risk perception) to the organisational (e.g., perceived safety culture).  In conducting post incident interviews, problems of human memory recall and the tendency to offer self-protective justifications pose serious challenges to obtaining accurate and comprehensive information…”

The fire and emergency services can be a very difficult industry sector to consult in and work with because of its quite insular culture and hierarchical work structure.  It is those elements that, once inside, provides considerable research scope but they can limit the applicability of research findings to other industries.

Researchers may be looking into the complexities of decision-making and the dehydration factors of firefighters but there are some who remain focussed on getting the most suitable and (short-term) effective safety protection possible.

PPE as an IR matter

The United Firefighters Union in Victoria had a running battle with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade for some years over protective clothing.  There is a sound logic behind one particular point that relates to the broader OHS concept of “state of knowledge”.  The types of protective clothing differed from one Australian State to another yet they all protect from very similar hazards.  Often cost was a major (and often unspoken factor) in PPE decision-making.

In the past PPE disputes have developed into industrial relations conflicts, particularly in Queensland.  A recent history of the Queensland United Firefighters Union illustrates two situations – a 1987 petrochemical fire left two firefighters injured due to the inadequacies of some of the PPE and that led partly to the damning Leivesley Report, and the battle with Tom Eves, Chief Officer to the Rockhampton Fire Brigade Board in 1969, ostensibly over the use of new polycarbonate helmets but which led to a protracted legal dispute.

PPE can be a lazy solution

Many workplaces have disputes or discussions about the appropriateness of PPE.  In firefighting the need for effective PPE is indisputable but in many other workplaces, PPE discussions can often mask better solutions.  These solutions could be long-term and/or expensive but that does not mean they should not be planned for.  In many industries PPE is a lazy OHS solution and one could say that if a hazard requires controlling through PPE, then there is always a more effective solution, even though this may, at the moment, not be reasonably practicable

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “PPE can be a lazy OHS solution”

  1. Your article “PPE as an IR Matter” is incorrect. It gives the impression that the Chief Office wanted to introduce polycarbonate helmets.

    Firstly, the type of helmet to be used was not within the powers of a Chief Officer, only the Fire Brigade Board.

    Secondly, it was the Union that wanted the polycarbonate helmets and this was refused by the Board. The polycarbonate helmets would not pass the Standard Test.

    The Board introduced helmets that cost more than twice the amount of the polycarbonate type, purely for reasons of safety.

  2. PPE is always the LAST resort on the hierarchy of controls, not the first. Fire fighters have to rely on it because they are constantly at worksites where they cannot exert any control, and they can’t eliminate the risk of exposure to fire, chemicals, falling objects, etc. That’s not true in most workplaces.

    Too often the first reaction to a hazard is put on some PPE, instead of taking the time to assess it and find a better solution. Does it need to be there at all? And if it can’t be eliminated, engineer a solution that stops people being exposed to it. In a sense, reliance on PPE is an admission of failure, because it implies you’re going to leave the hazard there, expose people to it and put a protective covering around them instead.

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