Firefighter Face Protection: Goggles vs. Faceshields

One of the proposals for the next edition of NFPA 1971 is to make goggles mandatory and faceshields optional

Editor's note: Jeffrey and Grace Stull's latest article outlines how changes are being advocated for firefighter eye and face protection in the current revision effort for NFPA 1971. Share your thoughts, experiences and preferences in the member comments section below.

By Jeffrey O. and Grace G. Stull

There is a continuing debate about the type of eye and face protection that should be provided to firefighters. Some groups advocate that traditional faceshields offer the best approach for the fire service while others insist that goggles must be mandated. This argument has existed over decades and practices within each department often align themselves with one approach or the other. The debate is coming to a head because the National Fire Protection Association technical committee responsible for the standard on structural firefighting protective clothing and equipment is in the process of undertaking its next revision and this matter has been a perennial issue with new directions now being sought.

Design and performance requirements for firefighters' helmets were first developed in 1977 by what was then the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce (formerly under the National Bureau of Standards). This report set the first criteria for firefighter helmets that were adopted by the NFPA in 1979 (the standard was designated NFPA 1972), but only addressed head protection.

It was not until the 1987 edition of NFPA 1972 that any type of eye or face protection was adopted. In that edition, faceshields became a mandatory part of the helmet and specific design and performance criteria were established. Initial performance was limited to flame, heat and impact resistance. In 1992, scratch resistance and light transmission requirements were added. In the 1997 edition, helmet specifications were combined with garments, glove and footwear as part of the new ensemble-based standard that replaced NFPA 1971.

Fields of vision
Goggles were added to the ensemble standard in 2000. In that edition, NFPA 1971 required either a faceshield, or goggles, or both to be provided as part of the helmet. Both faceshields and goggles had to be attached and provided as part of the helmet. All of the criteria that were applied to faceshields were also applied to goggles. However, instead of defining the specific dimensions for the faceshield, the standard required that faceshields or goggles provide a certain field of vision based on angular directions from the eyes. In the 2007 edition, NFPA 1971 no longer required that the goggles be attached to the helmet.

In the current revision effort, changes are being advocated for eye and face protection. Part of this effort is driven by the fact that there has been an inconsistency for NFPA 1971 with NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. NFPA 1500 requires firefighters to have eye and face protection during operations where eye and face hazards are present.

It specifically requires "primary eye protection shall meet the requirements of ANSI Z87.1, Practice for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection." (ANSI Z87.1 specifies requirements for different types of industrial eye and face protective devices including safety glasses, goggles, and faceshields, but does not include heat and flame requirements). The ANSI standard also states that the helmet faceshields should not be considered primary eye protection but wearing of an SCBA does constitute primary eye and face protection.

New proposals
One of the proposals for the next edition of NFPA 1971 is to make goggles mandatory and faceshields optional. In this approach, all helmets would have to be supplied with goggles and may or may not include a faceshield. This is a departure from the current requirements, where the helmet must have either a faceshield or a set of goggles (or both). It would mean that all helmets ordered would include goggles, whether requested or not. One of the side issues is whether the goggles would simply be provided with the helmet or be required to be attached to the helmet. Some believe that the attachment of goggles to the helmet is the only way to ensure that they will be worn even though end users may still opt for using faceshields.

There has been some discussion that the time has come for the fire service to recognize eye and face protection separately from the helmet. Proponents of this approach state that it is important to design eye and facewear to meet the intended hazards and set performance requirements accordingly.

Others contend that departments would rather make this choice and that attachment of goggles to the helmet only accelerates their degradation and renders the goggles unusable if left unprotected on top of the helmet. This proposal has obviously stirred a considerable amount of debate. Many major fire departments do not have goggles on their helmets and provide goggles separately. Several firefighters carry their goggles in the coat pocket to keep them clean and protected until needed.

It has been further proposed that a heat and flame resistant cover be provided for goggles when mounted on top of the helmet. Some departments claim that these devices are effective and are able to maintain the goggles in a good condition during working fires and other emergency operations. Other departments don't want anything else on their helmets or prefer only the faceshield to be attached because of their operational practices.

Some departments prefer faceshields. These faceshields may be of the conventional type which rest on top of the brim and then move down in front of the eye and upper part of the face. Like goggles, firefighters complain that the faceshield quickly becomes opaque and distorted in the first "good" fire exposure requiring its replacement. Alternatively, there are faceshields that are mounted underneath the brim and flip down in front of the eyes when needed. Firefighters often use faceshields of one type of other to help protect the SCBA facepiece, which serves as the firefighter's primary eye protection.

Different protection
Regardless of the type used, faceshields are not primary eye protection because particulates can easily come up from the bottom or sides directly into the eyes. One other type of faceshield that has been available for several years is of a design where it slides in and out of the shell, much like some motorcycle helmets, but these helmets do not have a "traditional" fire service appearance.

There is further a move to incorporate requirements from the ANSI Z87.1 standard for both goggles and eyewear. As described above, this standard addresses industrial eye and face protection, but has several criteria related to the optical quality and other features of eye and facewear that are not addressed in the NFPA 1971 standard. The implementation of these requirements is seen as a positive improvement, but the committee has to study which requirements to cite and ensure that their specification does not cause conflicts with other criteria in the standard.

Lastly, there has been some discussion that the time has come for the fire service to recognize eye and face protection separately from the helmet. Proponents of this approach state that it is important to design eye and facewear to meet the intended hazards and set performance requirements accordingly. It is argued that this approach offers the greatest flexibility since new criteria are provided that define appropriate eye protection for firefighters and manufacturers can decide to either separately sell these product or integrate the devices with helmets. Regardless, the approach then becomes one of continuing flexibility for fire departments to choose how they protect their members from eye and face hazards. If selected, this approach would require that NFPA 1500 reference use of eye and face protection devices that meet NFPA 1971.

The experience, sentiments, and opinions of the fire service needs to be heard on the issue of goggles versus helmets. We have found a variety of practices for eye and face protection throughout the country with passionate stances for each respective approach. NFPA 1500 makes it clear that both eye and face protection are needed during emergencies.

When the SCBA facepiece is not being worn and emergency operations are being conducted, eye and face protection must be worn when specific exposure hazards are present. How fire departments meet these requirements and how industry responds with different product options remains a matter of how the next edition of NFPA 1971 addresses the subject on goggles and faceshields.


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