Surprisingly, firefighting is ranked as one of the safest jobs in the United States, but that doesn't mean the job isn't risky.
It’s true that few firefighters aren’t killed on the job, but many are injured in the course of their duties. Sometimes these injuries aren’t immediately apparent, especially in the case of smoke inhalation and diseases that may not cause symptoms for years.
Every year, the National Fire Protection Association estimates that 62,000 firefighter injuries happen on the job with about 70 fatalities. The following are the most common injuries suffered by firefighters and the long-term impact.
Roof collapse is one of the greatest fears of any firefighter, and it’s a risk that can be hard to mitigate. Firefighters attempting to rescue someone from a burning building may become trapped by a roof or ceiling collapse as the building loses structural integrity. Roof collapse has killed dozens of firefighters in recent years and injured many more. One of the most well-known accidents occurred in Wichita in 1968, when four firefighters were killed by a collapsing roof. In 2010, two firefighters were killed and 17 were hurt by the collapsed roof of a burning building in Chicago.
Smoke inhalation is a leading cause of death among firefighters, but it’s also a common cause of acute injuries. Smoke inhalation can result in long-term neurological damage and lung disease, which can be exacerbated by toxic chemicals and carcinogens in the smoke. The Fire Smoke Coalition maintains a database with therapies used to treat smoke inhalation in firefighters with the goal of improving care and reducing long-term injury.
Exposure to Hazardous Conditions
Firefighters are often exposed to hazardous materials which may cause respiratory disease, chronic illness, or even cancer — especially when burning. The NFPA estimates there are nearly 35,000 exposures every year to asbestos, chemicals, and dangerous fumes, or about 33 exposures for every 1,000 hazardous condition runs.
Compared to the general public, firefighters have a 9% higher risk of cancer and a 14% higher risk of cancer-related death. Cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters and often a result of their job. In the past, most firefighter cancers were asbestos-related, but today they include leukemia and lymphoma. According to an NBC report, 200 Boston firefighters responded to an inferno at a power plant in 2002. By 2017, about one-quarter had been diagnosed with cancer or a cardiac disease. Many of these cancers are rare and affect firefighters at a young age.
Burns account for almost 8% of all injuries among firefighters. These burns include scalds, flame burns, and contact burns. In most cases, firefighters suffer burns to their face, but burns to the arms and hands are also common. Burns are classified as first-, second-, or third-degree burns, depending on their severity. While all burns can lead to disfigurement, serious burns can lead to disability, chronic pain, multiple surgeries, and an inability to work.
While firefighting may not carry a high risk of death on the job, firefighters frequently face dangerous conditions that can lead to long-term lung and heart disease, cancer, burns, and more. Firefighters who are injured or develop a disease or chronic illness as the result of their job typically qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. Many states have even adopted presumption laws that allow firefighters to receive benefits after a cancer diagnosis without working to prove their cancer was caused by specific exposure on the job. If you have suffered injuries or illness as a firefighter, a workers’ compensation attorney can help you build your case and fight for the benefits you deserve.