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New Cleaning Efficacy Requirements for Firefighters’ Personal Protective Equipment

UL invests in new laboratories to support compliance with the 2020 Edition of NFPA 1851.

Firefighter gear hangs in a row, waiting for the next call

December 17, 2019

Few professions pose a greater risk to workers than the fire service. Multiple times each working day, firefighters put their health and safety on the line to combat fires in their communities. These heroes deserve our respect and admiration for their willingness to face the apparent dangers of their everyday work environment to protect people and property.

Beyond the risks associated with exposure to fire and extreme heat, firefighters are also at an increased risk of developing various forms of cancer and heart disease due to their exposure to contaminants generated during a fire. According to recent studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), firefighters experience a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to cancer rates among the general population in the U.S.

Ironically, one of the chief sources of contaminants to which firefighters are exposed is their personal protective equipment (PPE). Often left uncleaned after a fire incident, soiled and contaminated PPE can continue to expose firefighters to potentially harmful chemicals and substances long after they’ve left the scene. And, for firefighters who stow gear in their personal vehicles between emergency calls, the risk of exposure to harmful contaminants from PPE can extend to others, including family and friends.

“The human impact of contaminated PPE is a very real concern,” noted Amanda Newsom, principal engineer at the UL Global Center of Excellence for the testing and certification of PPE in Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina. “In addition to the general cancer trends reported by NIOSH, there are even higher risks for specific types of cancers. For mesothelioma and testicular cancer, for example, the incidence rate among firefighters is twice that of the general population.”

To better address this emerging risk, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published a new edition of its standard NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. Released in August, NFPA 1851-2020 significantly strengthens cleaning and repair requirements for PPE used in the fire service, incorporating a new cleaning efficacy verification method to evaluate the effectiveness of a cleaning procedure used to decontaminate PPE.   

Equally important, NFPA 1851-2020 clarifies the types of services that providers are recognized to perform.  These services include the cleaning, repair and inspection services of firefighter PPE. The revised standard also added a “Verified Cleaner” category for facilities that are qualified to conduct cleaning and sanitization only, as well as a “Manufacturer Verified in Cleaning” category that allows providers already recognized to perform inspection and repair, to offer cleaning and sanitization services as well.

“These new categories expand the cleaning options available to firefighters and local fire services,” said Karla Litaker, Program Coordinator for NFPA 1851 verification at UL. “Doing so should help make it easier and more convenient for firefighters to have their PPE cleaned regularly, thereby reducing the exposure risk.”

In support of the revised standard, UL has aligned its own PPE cleaning verification services with the requirements of the revised standard and has developed a cleaning verification kit to help streamline the process for verifying the effectiveness of PPE cleaning services. And, continuing its long-standing efforts to support the safety and protection of firefighters, UL has also significantly expanded its laboratory testing capabilities in RTP to include chemical and bacterial analysis.

“These investments in our testing capabilities mean that we can address in our own facilities all PPE cleaning testing and verification efforts required under the standard,” noted Litaker. “After all, supporting the work of PPE cleaning service providers is part of UL’s long legacy of efforts to help ensure the safety and health of our firefighter community.”

Interested in NFPA 1851 Verification? Email [email protected] to learn more. 

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