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OSHA weighs in: Detailing the newly proposed PPE regulations

How will the potential changes impact fire departments?


Photo/Milton (Pa.) Fire Department

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provided a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in early February that it would be overhauling Title 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Section 1910.156, titled “Fire Brigades.” Few in the fire service know of the existence of these regulations, and frankly, over the past several decades, the regulations probably remained unnoticed because they were thought to apply principally to industrial fire brigades and were well out of date – thus of no real particular relevance to most contemporary fire service operations. That could now change with what can only be characterized as a sweeping, broadly comprehensive federal rewrite of how the fire service complies with requirements and all aspects of its operations.

The notice of the proposed regulations appears at the Emergency Response Rulemaking OSHA page.

Here we’ll answer some questions about how this change could impact the fire service.

What is the current relationship of OSHA regulations to the fire service?

To get some sense of what this all means, we need to look at the current situation. With our focus on PPE, it is a little easier to describe how OSHA regulations factor into fire service operations. Specifically looking at the 29 CFR 1910.156, these regulations apply to the organization, training and PPE of fire brigades whenever they are established by an employer. Because the term “fire brigade” is not defined in regulations, it would be easy to connect it to the mainstream fire service, especially given such language as “whenever they are established by an employer.” Nonetheless, these regulations do and have been applied within the fire service as a basis for ensuring that firefighters are adequately equipped with appropriate PPE. Still, given that these regulations were first promulgated in the early 1980s and had not been updated in any serious way until now, the requirements of the regulations have been very much out of date. For example, for interior firefighting, 29 CFR 1910.156 references the 1981 edition of NFPA 1971. Since 1981, there have been six new editions with substantial content updates and criteria that have expanded from garments to the full ensemble. Likewise, for respiratory protection, 29 CFR 1910.156 first mandated positive-pressure SCBA but did not reference the yet-to-be-developed NFPA 1981 standard for first service positive pressure open circuit SCBA.

Of course, there have been many other regulations that affect OSHA fire service operations in direct and indirect ways. The mandatory regulations in 29 CFR 1910.134 on “Respiratory Protection” dictate the practice of “two in and two out” when it comes to entry into immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environments. This requirement was directly written to support fire service operations.

In other related matters, 29 CFR 1910.120 for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response” helps define first service responsibilities for hazmat responses, particularly in terms of training and competence of firefighters in these types of operations, as well as the use of PPE.

Following the country’s focus on infectious diseases with HIV and hepatitis in the late 1980s, the promulgation of 29 CFR 1910.1030 established requirements around protection of employees from bloodborne pathogens. As first responders to medical calls, firefighters were considered subject to these regulations that mandated PPE protect the wearer (firefighter) from skin or underclothing contact with blood and other potentially infectious fluids. Even OSHA Subpart I on PPE, which generalizes protection of any worker in any type of exposure situation (found in 29 CFR Sections 1910.132 through 1910.138), makes it incumbent upon the fire service to conduct a hazard assessment for the selection of firefighter PPE and further requires that employers (fire departments) provide adequate training for its use and hold the responsibility of providing PPE in a clean and sanitary condition.

Regardless, the implementation of these or newer OSHA regulations is dependent on whether the state has its own regulations.

What are the federal vs. state requirements relative to OSHA regulations?

OSHA regulations set forth workplace safety and health standards for employers to protect workers in the United States. Workers include firefighters, and employers include fire departments. While OSHA is a federal agency, states may also have their own occupational safety and health programs, either run by the state government or through a state-plan approved by OSHA. The following describe how OSHA regulations apply across states:

OSHA regulations apply to most private sector employers and workers in the United States, regardless of the state they work in. These regulations set minimum standards for workplace safety and health that include respiratory protection and PPE.

  • Some states have chosen to develop their own occupational safety and health programs, known as state-plan states. These programs must be at least as effective as federal OSHA standards and may have additional requirements. State-plan states have their own OSHA-approved state agencies responsible for enforcing workplace safety and health standards.
  • In states without a state-plan program, federal OSHA regulations apply directly. However, some states may adopt additional regulations or standards that go beyond federal OSHA requirements. These state-specific regulations may address industries or hazards not covered by federal standards.
  • In state-plan states, the state agency is responsible for enforcing workplace safety and health standards. This includes conducting inspections, issuing citations for violations, and working with employers to ensure compliance. In states without a state-plan program, federal OSHA is responsible for enforcement.

Is important to note that while OSHA standards do not apply to volunteers, some volunteers are covered in states with OSHA-approved state-plan programs.
Overall, while OSHA regulations set federal standards for fire departments for firefighter safety and health, states may have their own requirements or programs that supplement or go beyond federal standards. Fire departments must be aware of and comply with both federal and state regulations applicable to their workplaces.

What makes the proposed OSHA regulations so significant?

The new regulations go well beyond interior structural firefighting as was originally covered in 29 CFR 1910.156. These regulations are described in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which was published in the Federal Register. A large part of the document explains why OSHA is undertaking the revision and why it has expanded scope of the regulations to address all types of operations associated with fire and emergency services. This includes statistics that cover some of the specific challenges and history related to firefighter injuries and fatalities. This preamble includes a substantial amount of evidence and cited references for supporting the regulations as proposed.

Within the 250-page document, the actual proposed revised 29 CFR 1910.156 starts on page 240. An important aspect for understanding these proposed revisions comes about in the terminology. Obligations or responsibilities for compliance with the regulations are established for what is called a Workplace Emergency Response Employer (WERE) or an Emergency Service Organization (ESO), which is defined as any organization that provides firefighting, EMS, and technical search and rescues. Clearly, definitions are an important part of these regulations to fully understand how they may impact a given organization.

An observation of substantial import is the reference to multiple NFPA standards across the range of incident operations, professional qualifications, training and PPE. Pertinent to PPE, the proposed new regulations provide a level of specificity relative to using equipment that meets the respective NFPA standards in the different areas of emergency response covered in the proposed rule. This covers 12 different NFPA PPE standards related to structural and wildland firefighting (NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1977), technical rescue (NFPA 1951), swiftwater rescue (NFPA 1952), contaminated water diving (NFPA 1953), hazardous materials and CBRN response (NFPA 1990), and emergency medical operations (NFPA 1999) as well was different respiratory protective products and related emergency equipment for structural firefighting (NFPA 1981 and NFPA 1982), wildland firefighting (NFPA 1984), and technical or tactical operations (NFPA 1986 and NFPA 1987). Currently, there are no specific requirements in the proposed OSHA regulations for complying with the respective companion NFPA standards for selection, care and maintenance, such as NFPA 1851 for structural gear and NFPA 1852 for SCBA. Nevertheless, there are specific areas of the regulations to address how departments manage PPE, especially for keeping it free from contamination.

The mandatory compliance of departments with these regulations will indeed cause some increased demand for ensuring that their members have equipment that meets the respective standards if and when these regulations are promulgated. On the other hand, promoting a level of future performance of PPE that is consistent with agreed-upon, consensus-based standards is a most worthy goal.

How can I make my opinions known to OSHA about the new regulations?

For many departments, the new regulations will be a lot to take in. While mandatory use product specifications, such as those covering PPE, probably fit into the existing practices for most fire service organizations, the need for compliance with other NFPA standards, such as those for selection, care and maintenance, as well as training and professional qualifications that directly require department compliance, could be difficult challenges for many organizations. Nevertheless, as with any rulemaking process, OSHA is seeking to understand the impact created by potential future compliance with these regulations by opening a period of public comment for individuals and organizations to share their feedback. Comment on the new regulations here. Note: This webpage also allows you to see comments provided by others relative to 29 CFR 1910.156, which includes many comments that predate the new rulemaking efforts.

OSHA is seeking feedback related to these topics:

  • Whether the agency should specify retirement age(s) for PPE. Commenters should provide information and data to support specific retirement/remove from service criteria for PPE.
  • Whether WEREs and ESOs are currently isolating and/or separating contaminated PPE and non-PPE equipment from team members and responders and also how this separation is being accomplished.
  • Whether there is evidence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in PPE causing health issues for team members and responders. Commenters should provide information and data to support release of PFAS from the PPE and movement of PFAS into the responder.
  • Whether the scheduled updates to NFPA 1971 will address or alleviate stakeholders’ concerns about PFAS in PPE.

Of course, comments can be submitted on any topic.
Overall, this is a big change for the fire service, and organizations and individuals are encouraged to consider the impact on their department and share feedback.

Get all the facts about Personal Protective Equipment. Foremost PPE expert Jeffrey Stull writes ‘PPE Update,’ a FireRescue1 column that covers personal protective equipment options, fit, selection and all the regulations for its care and maintenance.