Model Behaviour

A simple way of minimizing firefighters’ exposure to hazardous chemicals on the job, after the job, and between jobs. 

By Torbjorn Lundmark

It all started in 2006, when the fire station in a small town in northern Sweden began to implement simple strategies to minimise the health effects of firefighting on its personnel. Using modest means, the exercise turned out to be such a success that it has earnt awards, EU recognition, and implementation in other countries.

The program began under the name ‘Healthy Firefighters’, but has become known as ‘The Skellefteå Model’ after the country town where it was first developed.

In 2011, the Skellefteå Model was awarded the prestigious Good Practice Award from the European Agency for Safety and Health and won international acclaim. Both the European Trade Union Institute and the European Federation of Public Service Unions adopted the program in 2012.


Main emphasis

Firefighters run a greater risk of contracting serious illnesses than the rest of the population. In 2007, the World Health Organisation (WHO) established a connection between firefighting and a range of cancers, including testicular, prostate, and lymphatic. Firefighters may also suffer other health problems that are not associated with cancer, such as diseases of the heart, immune system, muscles, nerves, organs, hormone regulation, and possibly reproduction.

A fire incident almost always entails the release of hazardous substances, many of them unknown. There is no way of knowing what harmful chemicals may be present. Therefore, firefighters rely on various protective devices. The focus of the Skellefteå Model is safer procedures for handling contaminated clothing and equipment – especially after the job is finished. This includes simple routines at the site, during transportation, and upon return to the fire station.

In short, the program gives simple and practical advice on how to minimise the hazardous materials firefighters are exposed to, resulting in a safer work environment and improved well-being.


Risk moments

The firefighter’s job may seem risky enough by dint of the fire itself, but there are additional risk factors:

  • Hidden hazards can often go undetected by the firefighter, e.g. by smell or taste. Even the tear ducts and the natural coughing reflex can be numbed or dampened.

  • Changing work shifts may lead to physical and mental stress.

  • Extreme physical strain and thermal stress are risk factors that take their toll on the well-being of the fire professional.

  • Not a profession, an identity: both fire personnel and the public often see the firefighter as an identity, not an employee. This may explain why many firefighters see their work as a ‘job for life’. Long-term employment means long-term exposure to hazards.


Into the unknown

As the Skellefteå Model focuses on unknown hazardous substances, the subject of combustion gases plays a major role in the program. Heat and flame may generate more than 400 different harmful substances, including benzene, dioxin, formaldehyde, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and vinyl chloride – and that’s only from 7 common plastics. In a house fire, many more combustion gases are generated.

The firefighter may be exposed to these hazardous substances in three ways: inhalation, skin absorption, and swallowing.

  • Inhalation is simple to understand: if respiratory protection is not worn – even for a very short time – the firefighter will inevitably breathe in airborne materials.

  • Skin absorption can be deceptive. Not only is any opening in the turnout gear a possible entry point for contaminants, but just touching your skin with a dirty glove is a certain way of letting foreign materials reach the skin. This is particularly important when it comes to removing soiled clothing and equipment after the job. Add to this that chemicals commonly are absorbed more readily by warm and sweaty skin.

  • Swallowing hazardous materials can happen when not wearing any respiratory protection, or momentarily removing the respirator. Most ingestion happens after a job is finished, when the firefighter perhaps has some food to eat, enjoys a sweet or a bubble gum, takes a drink, or smokes. Bottles, dishes, packaging, and one’s own fingers may be contaminated. Furthermore, just swallowing saliva may ‘activate’ harmless substances into hazardous ones.

These three means of entry into the body are insidious. The absence of detectable characteristics in many hazards may lead to failure to wear personal protection when it is needed.

Some firefighters may resort to simple but largely ineffectual practices, such as breathing through the nose in the belief that the nose hairs will filter out airborne hazards (false), hold one’s breath or try to breathe less (counterproductive), or breathing into the elbow or collar (useless).


It’s in the mix

One problem in firefighting situations is that not only may there be unknown contaminants present, but often more than one. One chemical blending with another can cause far greater damage than each substance on its own. As mentioned, a contaminant may be harmless unmixed, but might become harmful when mixed with saliva. The combined effects of more than one chemical can be graded as follows:

  • No effect.

  • Added effect (each substance adds its own harmful effect).

  • Counteractive effect (the substances cancel each other out).

  • Synergistic effect (the combined effect is greater than that of each chemical).


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