This article looks at firefighter perceptions of dirty gear and how Palm Beach County Fire Rescue (PBCFR) promoted organizational resilience to combat the risk of firefighter cancer from dirty gear.
Cultural artifacts that are visible and tangible, like dirty gear, carry a sense of machismo and signify reliability, knowledge, expertise and professionalism.
— Study co-author, “Resilience, Culture Change, and Cancer Risk Reduction in a Fire Rescue Organization: Clean Gear as the New Badge of Honor”
Studies have shown that inhalation or absorption of carcinogens is how firefighters are most likely exposed to cancer risk. Exposure can come from direct contact with the skin to dirty gear — including gear removal — or indirect contact by off-gassing.
While there is wider awareness of the danger that dirty gear represents to firefighters, it is still the prevailing cultural and work norms that more often determine when firefighters don their gear and how that gear is maintained. Peer pressure and organizational imperatives will override safety culture in many instances.
The PBCFR study
Researchers looked at how work culture influences the way PBCFR firefighters perceive risky work practices and how organizational barriers can further impede progress in changing risky behavior. To help raise awareness of occupational cancer risk, a voluntary team at PBCFR formed the Firefighters Attacking the Cancer Epidemic group. They partnered with a nearby cancer center and university to find countermeasures.
- Twenty percent of firefighters still regard dirty gear as a badge of honor but that view is changing.
- While there is an acknowledgement that dirty gear is a problem that does not mean that regular cleaning of it occurs.
- There are competing priorities between getting needed rest in a high tempo environment versus taking cautionary steps to reduce a presumed — but still rather uncertain — cancer risk. Allowing time for firefighters to take the recommended cleaning actions runs up against not just cultural views but also organizational requirements. Implementing a simple scheduling change would send a clear message to rank-and-file about what the new work norm and practices should be.
- You can’t just focus on changing a cultural practice without also addressing an organization’s work policies and practices, which naturally are more focused on meeting immediate rather than long-term needs. You can get most firefighters to acknowledge the hazard posed by dirty gear but that won’t alone change behavior unless firefighters are given the time and resources to make clean gear a work priority.
Learn more about this research
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Harrison, T., Yang, F., Anderson, D., Morgan, S. Muhamad, J., Talavera, E., Solle, N., Lee, D., Caban-Martinez, A., Kobetz, E. (2017). Resilience, culture change, and cancer risk reduction in a fire rescue organization: clean gear as the new badge of honor. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management: Vol 25 (30), 171-181.
More information on the web
Firefighter Cancer Initiative
The materials on this website are designed to help educate firefighters about some of the cancer risks they face and processes that might help reduce those risks.
The Firefighter Cancer Initiative is funded by the State of Florida and led by the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.