OSHA and Infectious Diseases... Oh my!

When I started my journey attending the fire academy, I had heard rumors that we would be going through obstacles in our firefighter turn out gear, learning how to use equipment (like the Jaws of Life), and playing with fire hoses. Little did I know, we would also have to learn the importance of OSHA and the many infectious diseases we would encounter when responding to incidents. Today, firefighters no longer just respond to fires. They now go to medical emergencies, hazardous materials incidents, and acts of terrorism.


OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is a federal agency that oversees all lines of work to protect employees. For firefighters, OSHA is important because it mandates employers to focus on employee safety. The agency has the authority to inspect and investigate workplace injuries and fatalities and change company policy. Its primary mission is to reduce workplace hazards.


There is also MNOSHA (OSHA for Minnesota) that also places rules and regulations upon firefighters to ensure safety like the importance of wearing highly visible garments, inspecting structural firefighting gear for tears, rips, or damage, and showering after calls to reduce the risk of carcinogen exposure. Once we finished talking about the importance of OSHA and MNOSHA, we moved onto infectious diseases and how to properly wear out personal protective equipment (PPE).


We started by learning how to wash our hands properly. “Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.” This is what the CDC recommends and is currently enforcing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


We then moved on to how to remove latex gloves properly. Grasp the palm of your glove. Carefully pull the glove off, turning it inside out. Hold the soiled glove in the still-gloved hand and insert two fingers at the wrist of the still-gloved hand. Pull the glove until it is inside out. Wash hands. We practiced this method by putting shaving cream on our gloves and seeing if we could take them off without getting shaving cream on our skin (which is actually harder than it sounds!).


The lecture continued on, talking about the importance of covering your face while sneezing or coughing, how to wash out your eyes if you get other people’s fluid in them, and what to do if you come in contact with blood. My stomach became queasy. Why are firefighters learning this? I remember learning these proper hygiene techniques as a nursing assistant whereas I would definitely be coming into contact with blood and fluids, but why firefighters? Don’t we just go to fires and have minimal contact with patients? This is how firefighting has changed over time.


Not only do firefighters go to smells, bells, and fires, but most paid-on-call/volunteer departments are dispatched to ALL medical calls. This means that firefighters, (since they oversee just their city and not the entire county, like ambulances), arrive on scene first and size-up the medical emergency. Firefighters gather background information, perform patient assessments, take blood pressure, pulse, distribute oxygen, perform CPR or stop the flow of blood (if necessary), all before Emergency Medical Services have arrived. Firefighters have truly become the Swiss Army knives of their community. If we do not perform basic hygiene and get sick, no one will respond to the community’s calls.


All in all, firefighters must practice safety measures whether it comes to inspecting gear per OSHA requirements or washing their hands after sneezing to stop the spread of infectious diseases. If these simple practices are compromised, it could affect not only themselves, but also the community they serve.


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