Part 1: Head and eye protection Your Safety Depends on Equipment

Part 1: Head and eye protection Your Safety Depends on Equipment

Fiber glass helmet, left, has a nylon suspension. Other helmet has energy-absorbing material inside shell and a face shield.Eye protection is provided by a two-piece, light, plastic shield that swings under helmet brim when it is not needed by the fire fighter.

The fire service has not moved as fast as the business world in adopting concepts of accident-injury control. There are many reasons for this. To begin with, the fire service is not fully cognizant of its safety needs. Second, there is an absence of safety legislation governing fire service operations. Finally, fire fighters themselves indicate a negative attitude toward their personal safety.

It is perplexing that many fire fighters are fearful of the concept of safety. They rationalize that safe work practices will diminish their manliness and operational effectiveness. They draw the invalid conclusion that anyone intersted in his own safety is too frightened to give the job his maximum effort.

This reasoning is immature, is illustrative of a lack of understanding, and is responsible for the rising rate of injuries and deaths among firemen.

Fire chiefs must learn that safety is a prerequisite to effective fire fighting. By protecting the fire fighter from harm, they can guarantee a more successful fire attack and continued service to the community. Because they put service to their fellow man above their own personal safety, firemen have injury rates that are among the highest in the nation.

Because fire fighters are eager to do the best possible job, they often fail to realize that improper use of tools, improper work methods, and misuse of personal protective equipment are responsible for lowering their individual performance and consequently their overall effectiveness. These same factors are responsible for many of their injuries.

While fire fighters’ injuries include many types, the ones which plague them the most are strains, sprains, exhaustion, smoke inhalation, eye injuries, lacerations, punctures, head injuries and bums. The diseases which take the highest toll of deaths are among the cardiovascular and lung types.

The environment in which the fire fighter is compelled to work is at best an unsafe physical condition. Removing the hazards would require the elimination of fires. This is practically impossible, so what can be done? The most feasible answer is to protect the fireman while he is operating in this unsafe work environment. This protection is provided by personal protective equipment.

Basic safety methods

Before we begin talking about personal protective equipment, the following concept must be emphasized. There are three basic ways to safeguard against hazards. The first is to eliminate the hazard at its source (e.g., remove the fire from the building). The second involves intercepting the hazard on its path between the source and the man (e.g., water curtains). The final, but least desirable, way is to prevent the hazard from reaching the man by protecting the man himself. Although this method is least desirable of the three mentioned, in many instances it is the only method available and must be accepted.

Safety goggles come in a variety of styles and materials.

The most serious weakness of a personal protective device is that it does nothing to reduce or eliminate the hazard, but merely sets up a defense against it. Failure of the defense mechanism means immediate exposure to the hazard. There are several other problems which hamper the effectiveness of personal protective equipment. To begin with, the equipment is designed to provide a specific type of protection. Purchasing the incorrect type of equipment or using the equipment where it is not intended will create problems which can result in serious injury or death.

The second reason is that the fireman himself must be relied on to use and maintain equipment properly.

Deterioration danger

Third, many protective devices become ineffective without the knowledge of the wearer. This is a particularly serious situation. An example of this would be the surface breakdown of natural rubber (used for electrical insulated gloves) into a series of interlacing cracks by the action of ozone in the air. When this happens, the insulative properties of the gloves are destroyed.

Finally, the firemen wearing protective equipment will naturally depend upon the equipment for protection in conditions of greater danger than he would normally subject himself to. If he is not trained in the use of equipment, it will be ineffective, and the personal danger to the fireman will be much greater than if the protective equipment had not been available.

The selection of personal protective equipment and the control of its use are functions of fire department management. It is management’s responsibility to purchase the best available equipment for the department’s needs, establish and strictly enforce rules and regulations regarding its use and maintenance, and see to it that all firemen have a thorough knowledge of these requirements.

The remainder of this article is devoted to two purposes: first, to provide insight for selecting personal protective equipment for firemen, and second, to provide suggestions where applicable for the use, care and maintenance of this highly specialized apparatus.

Selecting equipment

Several questions enter the mind of those who are saddled with the responsibility of selecting personal protective equipment for firemen—questions such as: What constitutes the best available product? Do I need the best available product or will a lesser quality do? How much will it cost to buy it? How much will it cost to maintain it?

Speaking as one who on several occasions has had to mull over these same questions, I can say the task is not simple, and decisions are not easily made. To add to the problem, there are several manufacturers of fire fighter safety equipment. The products of each of them have advantages and disadvantages. All products must be evaluated before any final decisions are made.

Another problem deals with equipment standardization. Those who have brought more than one kind of a particular type of safety equipment into an organization have witnessed many problems arising out of training in equipment usage, maintenance practices, procurement problems and so on. Control is extremely difficult. To avoid these problems, the number of protective device types, e.g., types of helmets, boots, eye shields, should be kept to a minimum. The ideal condition is to have only one type of each in the department.

The following information has been prepared as a guide for selecting and maintaining personal protective equipment. It does not cover every detail, but is designed to give the reader a general feel for the problem.

Head protection

The fire fighter’s head must be protected against impact blows from flying particles and falling objects. This protection is provided by specially designed helmets which protect the wearer’s head against the forces of impact, thus preventing injury to the head, neck, and back.

Firemen’s helmets should have a wide brim to prevent hot water and debris from reaching the ears and neck, be of durable construction to provide high impact resistance and bump protection, have good abrasion qualities and, finally, have a dielectric strength to protect the wearer up to 600 volts. More detailed information concerning firemen’s helmet specifications can be found in Safety Code Z 2.1 of the American Standards Institute, 10 East 40th Street, New York, N. Y. 10016.

There are basically two types of helmets on the market that are suitable for the fire fighter. One consists of an outer shell and a suspension system. The other consists of an outer shell lined with an energy-absorbing material. Each performs protective functions to a certain degree. In both cases the shells are designed to cushion the impact forces, deflect blows, and distribute the impact forces over a large area. Materials used for the shell should have water, acid and fire-resistant qualities and be nonconductors of electricity. Leather, plastic and fiber glass are among the materials commonly used.

Suspension systems performs a separate function. This web-type network, located inside the outer shell, supports the helmet on the wearer’s head and prevents the shell from striking the fireman’s head when it is subjected to the forces of impact. Suspension networks are made from various materials, although cloth and synthetic tapes are most common.

Head protection theories

Helmets designed with a shell and a liner made of an energy-absorbing material conform to a different theory of head protection.1 This theory indicates that the shorter the time duration of the forces of impact, the higher the pressure must be in order to result in concussive effect. Therefore, this helmet is capable of withstanding high impact with minimal concussive effect to the wearer’s skull by absorbing the energies transmitted to it and dissipating them over the surfaces of the liner. This theory deviates from that behind helmets using the web-type suspension networks in that the suspension type depends upon a longer time duration of the impact to absorb the shock before it reaches the skull.

This type of helmet consists of a hard shell which will not be deformed excessively due to impact and a liner which will absorb the energies transmitted to it by the shell. Experiments indicate that greater impact can be sustained with this type of helmet than with the suspension type.

In addition, it doesn’t matter which part of the helmet is subjected to impact, since adequate protection is provided on all parts of the shell.

The suspension-type helmet cannot provide this option since it relies on the point of impact being at the top of the shell. Little side protection is afforded by this type of helmet.

The evaluator must weigh all criteria before he comes to a decision on the type of head protection which will suit the needs of his organization. In many cases, field tests of various types of helmets and helmet materials will be required.

1 Wayne University, Neurosurgical Service, “Relation of Physiologic Effect to Time Duration of Intracranial Pressure Increases at Impact.”

Regardless of the type of helmet selected, care will be required to keep the device in serviceable condition, since worn or damaged helmets cannot provide the protection for which they were designed.

Care of helmets

The following are guides for the proper care and maintenance of fire helmets:

  1. Dirt and foreign matter should be removed from the shell.
  2. Suspension systems should be frequently inspected to detect deterioration. Deteriorated suspension systems must be replaced.
  3. Nonrecoverable liners must be inspected often to determine if they have cracked or have become otherwise unserviceable.
  4. Leather shell helmets should be allowed to dry in a cool, well-ventilated place to avoid shrinking and warping.
  5. Chemicals, oils, and petroleum products must be removed from shell materials as soon as possible, since these agents attack and soften the shell material and reduce its impact and dielectric protection. If it ever becomes necessary to repaint a helmet, the manufacturer should be consulted regarding the choice of paints for a particular shell material.
  6. To assure the proper protection, the suspension network must leave 1 1/2 inches between the top of the wearer’s head and the crown of the shell. The suspension lace, if present, should always be tied with a square knot.
  7. Helmets which are damaged, do not fit properly or (in the case of the leather helmet) become stiff with age, should be repaired or replaced.

Proper care and maintenance of helmets will assure their dependability in providing the protective function.

Eye protection

Injury to eyes and loss of sight has plagued fire fighters since their profession began. As with many other articles of personal protective equipment, eye protection is frowned upon by many in tire fire service. Some of the reasons which were valid in the past for rejecting eye protection, e.g., uncomfortable fit, distorted vision, fogging lenses, etc., are no longer justified.

Fighting fires entails constant eye exposure. The fire fighter is frequently exposed to physical and chemical agents which are capable of causing serious eye injury. The following are examples of injury-producing operations: cutting action of flying glass chips when windows are vented, airborne dirt and debris resulting from hose stream operations, falling plaster, the impact of large and small flying particles generated by specialized cutting tools, splashing chemicals, and falling molten metal.

The selection of proper eye wear is not a simple task, since there are many products available and each is specially designed to provide a particular type of protection. The following points of information are offered to guide the evaluator toward proper eye wear selection.

Before a selection is made, consideration must be given to the kind of hazard to be guarded against and the ability of the eye protective device to afford this protection. The types of eye protective devices available include goggles, full face shields and half face shields. Each performs a specific task.

Comfort is important

Regardless of which type of eye protection is selected it is mandatory that the device fit the fireman properly and comfortably. Uncomfortable and/or incorrect fitting eye wear will end up in a man’s pocket, thus negating its usefulness. A good rule to determine proper fit is to have the evaluator wear the protective device. If it is uncomfortable for him, then it can well be expected that it will be the same for the fire fighter. The edges of the device which bear against the face should be smooth and free from irregularities which might exert undue pressure or cause discomfort.

Coupled with fit is vision. The device should be designed to afford an effective angle of vision of at least 105 degrees and should be made of materials which offer an acceptable degree of scratch resistance.

Plastic is probably the most common material used for lens manufactute. This material combines mechanical strength and lightness of weight with impact resistance. All are qualities desirable for firemen’s use. Of the many types of plastics on the market, the acrylics and polycarbonates are probably the bast for lens material. My personal selection is the polycarbonates because they combine tensile strength, impact resistance, and resistance to heat and acids with lightness of weight and durability. This material offers excellent protection against impact and hot-metal splash hazards.

Ventilation necessary

Eye protective devices should be designed to permit the circulation of air. Since fire fighting involves contact with heat and water, fogging becomes a problem. The device selected for firemen should be designed to permit a flow of air behind the lens. If a goggle type is selected, ventilation openings should be baffled or screened to prevent the direct passage of dust or liquids into the interior of the device.

The lenses should have the capacity to withstand at least 150°F for 1 hour without noticeable distortion.

All pertinent details concerning eye protection standards will be found in the American National Standards Institute Safety Code Z 2.1.

Based on my own evaluation of protective devices under actual fire conditions, I recommend the type of eye protective device which is made of polycarbonate plastic and attached to the underside of the helmet brim. The device is designed to snap into position instantly when it is needed and can be snapped up and out of the way when it is not. The lenses have excellent impact characteristics.

(Continued next month)

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