Firefighter PPE: Understanding limitations of government regulations

Many federal and state regulations are not regularly updated and lack requirements for conformity assessment

We are all affected by government regulations. The fire service is no exception. There are a number of regulations from both the federal government and state governments that affect firefighter personal protective equipment.

Included in these regulations are general requirements for fire departments (employers) to provide PPE for their firefighter employees. These requirements extend to not only providing the PPE but also caring and maintaining it, and providing training on the use and limitations of protective clothing and equipment.

These regulations are found in OSHA 29 CFR Part 1910.132. The regulations, sometimes also known as a "general duty clause" or Subpart I, further prescribe fire departments conduct hazard assessments and select the appropriate personal tech equipment based on the identification of hazards.

Well understood
For the most part, these regulations are well understood and, in fact, NFPA 1971 requires that manufacturers include a reference to these regulations in the user information provided for their clothing and equipment products that are certified to the standard.

There are also government regulations that pertain to minimum requirements for personal protective clothing and equipment. One example is OSHA 29 CFR Part 1910.156. These regulations are titled “fire brigades” and specify minimum requirements for personal protective clothing and equipment used by firefighters.

The regulations were first enacted in the early 1980s and unfortunately have not been updated in the past 30 years. Consequently, in specifying protective garment minimum requirements, the federal regulations indicate that garments should comply with the 1975 edition of NFPA 1971, even though there have been a total of six revisions that have followed, with increasing numbers of performance requirements for firefighter clothing.

The OSHA regulations allows the tear strength of outer shell materials to be lower than was required in the NFPA standard and exempts outer shell materials from having to resist charring when exposed to high heat if suitable flame resistance can be demonstrated.

These regulations become problematic because they are the law yet at the same time they do not come anywhere close to specifying the levels of performance that are found in the newer editions of NFPA 1971 since 1975.

When further examined, similar requirements for protective helmets, gloves, and footwear are equally out of date with modern criteria. Protective hoods are not even addressed.

Respective NFPA editions
No competent manufacturer still fabricates their clothing (garments) strictly to these older standards. Occasionally, one may find a reference to the OSHA regulations as part of the label or claims for a particular product, but this information is generally accompanied by the appropriate certification to the then respective edition of NFPA 1971.

Some jurisdictions may require the reference to the OSHA regulations because it is the law, but it should be understood that these federal regulations are woefully inadequate and provide an unsafe basis for specifying firefighter protective clothing performance on their own.

Nonetheless, there are some products where federal or state regulations are basis for the sole representation of firefighter personal protective equipment.

This is most commonly observed for protective gloves because some departments consider gloves to be a commodity given their lower price compared to other parts of the firefighter protective ensemble.

At the time they were prepared, the OSHA regulations did not have the benefit of an existing NFPA standard on firefighter gloves. The first NFPA standard on gloves (numbered 1973) did not become available until 1983.

Therefore, OSHA made reference to a study performed by Arthur D. Little, performed under contract to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

That study set out to develop specific criteria and test methods for demonstrating the protective qualities of firefighter gloves, which were to become the basis for future requirements for gloves in the NFPA 1973 standard.

Certain portions
For whatever reason, the government only chose to implement certain portions of the government study for gloves. In contrast, the NFPA 1973 standard on gloves accepted nearly all the requirements directly from the Arthur D. Little study.

According to the OSHA Act, the individual states are allowed to develop their own regulations for occupational safety and health as long as those regulations as a minimum meet the existing federal requirements.

In the state of California, for example, regulations have been promulgated for structural fire fighting protective clothing and equipment under Title 8 of the California code of regulations and are found in Article 10.1.

Specific requirements for hand and wrist protection are provided in Section 3407. These regulations specify a few tests for gloves that include conductive heat resistance, radiant heat resistance, flame resistance, dexterity, and grip.

These regulations contrast with the federal regulations in some respects; however, like 29 CFR 1910.156, they deviate substantially from the current requirements provided by NFPA 1971 as well as earlier embodiments of the glove performance standard since its initial release in 1983.

There are substantial differences in the performance requirements for firefighter gloves that exist in both the federal and California state regulations as compared to the NFPA standards.

These include a number of specific performance areas that are simply not addressed as part of the federal or state regulations. For example, there are no regulations for the gloves performance against wet heat transfer, or for that matter, any specific requirement for moisture barrier and the ensuing liquid protection provided by the moisture barrier.

Glove regs
The California state regulations do indicate that “protective gloves for firefighters shall be made of durable outer material designed to withstand the effects of flame, heat, vapor, liquids, sharp objects and other hazards that are encountered in firefighting.”

Yet, criteria are not provided in these regulations that address each performance area though it can be argued that gloves should demonstrate these specific qualities by some means.

In the current edition of NFPA 1971, there are several areas of performance which have been developed over the years to address firefighter concerns for protection of their hands.

It has long been recognized that the hands are very vulnerable to burn injury because of the relative large surface area to volume ratio of the hands as compared to other parts of the body.

Developments that are taking place in the creation of requirements for firefighter hand protection have attempted to address these concerns as well as take into consideration new material and design technologies available for gloves.

Neither the federal regulations, nor the California state regulations are able to keep pace with emerging glove technology or set requirements for the improvements of firefighter health and safety in response to fire service needs.

Cannot be responsive
The respective portions of the government simply cannot be responsive in a timely and periodic manner. For that matter, it is uncertain as to what resources the federal or state government can draw upon for setting requirements. The NFPA process uses balanced membership interests combined with several forums for public input.

The specific problems that ensue from relying only on the federal or California state regulations for firefighter conformity arise in many other forms.

Other than the fact that the regulations are clearly deficient in addressing all protection concerns for firefighters, there is also the absence of requirements for the certification of products, the provision of user information, and appropriate product labeling.

The NFPA standards are relatively robust in covering all parts of the manufacturing process to ensure that products meet the requirements in the standard.

These include that the manufacturer employs quality assurance procedures that ensure that all manufactured products meet the same level of performance as those products that are tested under the standard.

Government regulations do not address certification at all. Manufacturers can self-certify their product to the government regulations and not be subject to independent review, nor any of the other benefits that third party certification provides.

There are no requirements for quality assurance programs to be in place or for independent audits to ensure that quality practices are being followed. Manufacturers are further not required by the government regulations to provide any user information and can label their product however they choose.

These practices put the fire service in a dangerous position and compromise the safety of their members. Unfortunately, fire departments and individual firefighters may not realize how deficient these regulations are.

They assume that because there is some indication of meeting a regulation, the product is acceptable. After all, they cannot be experts in PPE — they are relying on the manufacturers to provide that expertise and any apparent endorsement gives rise to the legitimacy of the product.

It is our opinion that where accepted industry standards exist, products should at least comply with those standards. We do not believe that either the federal or state government regulations alone are a sufficient basis for qualifying the protective product as acceptable.

Sometimes, there may be exceptions but only if coupled to appropriate standards. In our state of Texas, there are state statutes that require career firefighters to wear structural firefighting protective clothing and equipment to meet the current edition of NFPA 1971.

Similar practices exist in some but not all states. Certainly, NFPA standards are voluntary, but they represent the base minimum for what the industry considers acceptable levels of protection and provide a rigorous basis for demonstrating compliance — the same cannot be said for many federal and state regulations that are not regularly updated and lack requirements for conformity assessment.

Post note — We want to wish our readers a very happy holidays and great start to the New Year. We are thankful for your comments, input, and other remarks that help us to address your needs. Please always operate with the utmost safety and be aware of your surroundings and limitations of the gear you use.

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