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Special Hazards: Firefighter Health and Safety Considerations at Construction Sites

Special Hazards: Firefighter Health and Safety Considerations at Construction Sites

(Special thanks to Ladder 6 - City of Hartford)

Just as the fire service is constantly changing with operational tactics, equipment, and tools, so are the unique response challenges we may face.  The construction industry is booming, and with that comes the increased potential for responses to these unique and potentially dangerous sites.   In this article, I will discuss the various benefits that come with establishing and maintaining a great relationship with the construction management teams on the worksites in your area.

Overview

All fire departments, regardless of size and makeup, are trained and prepared to provide basic life support (BLS) and perform fire suppression functions such as stretching hose lines, ventilation, and search & rescue. Construction job sites create the additional potential for unique emergencies not commonly encountered in finished construction due to the high-risk activities taking place on site. Trade personnel working from scaffolding and lifts, operating excavation equipment, performing hot work (welding), and engaging in blasting and demolition pose a greater risk for illness, injury, entrapment, and fire.

Pre-incident planning has proven to be extremely valuable in creating and implementing changes in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for response to target hazards. Networking and establishing a relationship with the construction management teams working at sites in your response district will better prepare your crew for what unique hazards (excavation, high angle, etc.) exist on the job site.

Building Construction

On the most basic level, firefighters should, at a minimum, conduct tours of job sites to learn the type(s) of construction being utilized for whatever is being built. Maintaining situational awareness of construction progress and associated hazards is paramount to better prepare for response to a fire. Knowing in advance the construction type provides key indicators on fire load and behavior, potential for collapse, and other hazards and characteristics specific to the type of building construction.

Apparatus Access

The construction job site will pose various access issues not commonly found in established or developed areas. They include but are not limited to:

  • Perimeter fencing

  • Storage of construction material and debris

  • Equipment/machinery (excavator) obstructions

  • Access and availability of fire protection features (hydrants, FDCs, etc.)

  • Stability and reinforcement of roadways

  • Temporary overhead obstructions such as utility lines

  • Poor site illumination

Additional Apparatus and Access Concerns

Even in accessible areas, demolition, site preparation, and infrastructure installation can create unstable and uneven driving surfaces. This terrain poses the potential for apparatus to become stuck or roll over, and it creates challenges when attempting aerial apparatus stabilization.

Excavation

Construction sites can create an increased risk of an excavation or trench rescue. These low-frequency, high-risk events pose increased firefighter safety concerns.

While operating at the scene of an excavation, extreme caution must be taken. Disturbed soil creates an unstable working environment. A review of trench rescue SOPs is recommended to keep personnel safe from injury. Potential hazards include but are not limited to:

  • Limited access/egress

  • Potential for collapse/cave-ins

  • Accumulation of water, gases, etc.

  • Limited working space for patient treatment and packaging

  • Poor site illumination

Fire Protection Systems

The greatest hazard associated with construction site fire protection systems is relying on a system that may be inoperable. At any given time during the demolition or construction phases, hydrants, fire department connections (FDC), sprinkler systems, and standpipe systems could be impaired or removed altogether. Be aware of and regularly inspect for the following:

  • Hydrants out of service or inaccessible

  • Impaired water mains

  • Blocked or removed fire department connections (FDC)

  • Impaired sprinkler systems

 

Airborne Contaminants

EMS responses at construction sites pose the potential for encountering airborne contaminants that can present a health threat to responding firefighters. A few of the more common airborne contaminants and inhalation hazards you can expect to encounter are:

  • Silica (concrete dust)

  • Asbestos

  • Inert Gases (Nitrogen, Argon, etc.)

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Even at “routine” incidents at construction sites, it is likely that there will be a need for a higher level of PPE than just a station uniform and examination gloves.  Most job sites, which fall under OSHA 29 CFR 1926, will dictate that at a minimum, the following PPE are required while operating on site:

  • Hard Hat

  • Safety Glasses

  • Steel or Composite Toed Boots

  • Leather or other applicable gloves

 

Departments that allow soft shoes, sneakers, and short pants to be worn during the summer months must consider implementation of a SOP that includes the appropriate level of PPE to be worn at construction sites and similar hazardous locations.

Technical Rescue Scenarios

When it comes to a construction site, trade personnel could easily succumb to illness or injuries in the most unique locations such as the following:

  • Staging/Scaffolding

  • Elevator Shafts

  • Roof Access Points

  • Cranes

At incidents, such as these, manpower can become an issue due to the labor-intensive nature of the operation.  Not only is adequate staffing required, it is also important for the responding personnel to be trained in technical rescue disciplines that may be encountered. If the capability to perform certain technical rescues is not available, consider mutual aid agreements with departments that have personnel trained to handle these situations.

Conclusion

Construction sites present several unique and challenging response considerations.  Taking the time to tour the construction areas within your district is the key to success when preplanning in your district.  Being prepared will create a safer work environment for personnel and increase your chances of successfully stabilizing incidents at these locations. 

AB Turenne is a 19-year veteran of the fire service in Eastern Connecticut and is a Firefighter / EMT-B with Flanders Fire (E. Lyme, CT). As a Certified Level II Fire Service Instructor, AB's training curriculum has proven to be conducive with the operational needs of those he teaches and in turn has improved the human capital knowledge of many. A recent graduate from the Masters of Public Administration program at Anna Maria College, AB has continued his efforts in training and education by contributing to the Fire Engineering Training Community.

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