Does the emergency response community need more Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations?
This is on OSHA’s radar. From July 30 to 31, 2014, OSHA conducted a stakeholders meeting at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. To attend the meeting, an interested person had to submit an application. The applicant had to choose whether to attend as a participant or as an observer. From the applications, OSHA determined who attended and limited attendance to one day only, stating that the subject areas would be repeated on the second day. I applied as an observer and was invited to attend the first day.
In September 2007, OSHA issued a “Request for Information” to solicit comments from the public to evaluate what action, if any, it should take to address the issue of OSHA regulations. Then, almost six years later, it decided to call the stakeholders meeting based on 9/11 World Trade Center surviving responder illness and the deaths and injuries from the West Fertilizer Company explosion and fire in April 2013 in West, Texas. OSHA indicated these two events highlighted the extremely high rate of emergency responder workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses.
It was clear from the beginning of the meeting that OSHA thinks it should become more involved in developing workplace standards. The participants (approximately 30) came from diverse backgrounds including fire, utilities, rail, towing, construction workers, flight attendants, the FBI, and other government personnel. OSHA noted, “Skilled support employees are not emergency responders but nonetheless have specialized training that can be important to the safe and successful resolution of an emergency incident.” The meeting was divided into four focus areas: preparedness, incident scenarios, emergency categorization, and flexibility. The comments during each of the four focus areas often overlapped. There was no doubt that the majority of the stakeholders believed there should be more OSHA involvement. The overarching question was not if but what and how?
Both the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) representatives stressed the importance of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, especially the health and wellness standards. In fact, “NFPA” was easily the most used acronym throughout the meeting. OSHA indicated that it is seriously considering enforcing NFPA standards but thinks some are not written to be enforceable. There was considerable discussion about the level of service an emergency response agency provides. For example, is a fire department an incipient, interior, or exterior fire department? There was general consensus that if an organization provided the service, it should meet an applicable standard. As in all of the focus areas, the idea of “typing” emergency response organizations was a common theme. There were no specific number of “types” suggested, but an organization’s “type” would be based on the level of service provided.
One of the questions about incident scene requirements was, “Should the focus be on high risk or more comprehensive?” The overwhelming answer was “comprehensive.” The group stated that the “800-pound gorilla in the room” was carcinogen exposure at fire scenes. The group identified wellness and fitness as key points in the ability of emergency responders to safely handle incidents. The issue of age also came up, since the average age of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) is 52, leading to the suggestion that organizations need to provide age-appropriate service. Another discussion point was that NFPA standards are voluntary, unless adopted and enforced by the authority having jurisdiction, and OSHA standards are mandatory. Also, the fire service picks and chooses the NFPA standards it uses, and this was deemed unacceptable.
This focus area went to the core of the idea that emergency response agencies should be typed based on their level and scope of service. For example, one question was, “Should a standard be based on the amount of resources of a fire department?” There was a big emphasis on the importance of size-up, and the group suggested that there should be a size-up standard. This was illustrated by the Blue Card Command Certification Program, which requires seven steps of size-up that must be radio transmitted. Often fire departments engage in offensive operations when they should engage in defensive operations. Typically size-up does not necessarily assess risk vs. gain-and it should. Within this focus area, attendees discussed the topic of firefighter suicides, which the group deemed the other “elephant in the room” as there are an estimated 300 per year. One participant noted there is adrenal addiction and adrenal withdrawal among firefighters.
The main discussion on the focus area was allowing flexibility based on a fire department’s capability. The general consensus was that there should be flexibility but there should also be an across-the-board minimum. Specifically, firefighter health and safety do not distinguish among the various sizes of fire departments. Another participant stated that firefighter health and safety are best when firefighters are trained to standards, with minimum training hours, and certified to the standard.
One fire officer stated that the fire service is “grossly underregulated” as indicated by the LODDs and injuries that greatly exceed other developed nations. Also of note is that not all jurisdictions require a commercial driver’s license to operate a fire apparatus. One suggestion was that any new standard be folded into existing standards for one comprehensive standard so as not to conflict with existing standards. The issue of cost led one participant to say a new standard might reduce several areas of duplicated service.
Almost all of the OSHA staff at the meeting had backgrounds in emergency services. OSHA currently allows employers to choose and use existing standards, such as NFPA standards, for certain applications for compliance. OSHA has an option for advisory panels, but they are rarely used. OSHA has never used “pilot” sites, but it might consider phase-in implementation.
There is no certainty that OSHA will implement new standards. However if it does, a large portion of the fire service will not be pleased. Firefighter health and safety is a collective problem that can be improved through individual and local initiatives and action. In the absence of those initiatives and action, the door has been left open for OSHA to step in.
Back in the mid 1980s during the discussion of whether or not to develop a health and safety standard for fire departments-now NFPA 1500-someone asserted, “If we don’t take care of our own health and safety, then the guys in the long black robes will.” Thirty years later, has that time arrived?
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).