Breathing Through The Flames: The Essential Guide To Face Fit Testing For Hazardous Environments

A house fire that will be have to be tackled by firefighters wearing face fit tested rpe so they can work safely in hazardous environments.

For firefighters and emergency first responders, the line between safety and danger is often as thin as the smoke-filled air that surrounds them. Exposed to dense smoke that is contaminated by chemicals, toxins, or other dangerous respirable hazards, firefighters willingly put themselves in harm's way to protect lives and property, so it is imperative that their protective gear withstands the formidable challenges of the job.

Face fit testing, particularly Quantitative Face Fit Testing (QNFT), is a vital tool that ensures that firefighters’ self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks and respirators provide optimum protection and performance in even the most hazardous of environments.  Even positive pressure BA equipment requires an adequate seal to the face of the wearer, if it does not seal adequately then it will likely fail to provide the designed high level of protection that is required is high-risk environments.

In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about face fit testing, how it improves safety for firefighters, and how it ensures your Fire and Rescue Service complies with current safety regulations.

Why Is Face Fit Testing Important?

While masks and respirators are designed to ensure firefighters do not inhale contaminated air, a poorly fitting mask will allow the infiltration of respirable hazards which could expose emergency personnel to risk. Smoke is laden with toxic chemicals, particulate matter, and harmful gases that pose immediate and long-term health risks to anyone who inhales it. According to research commissioned by the UK’s Fire Brigades Union (FBU), toxic contaminants in fire are directly associated with increased rates of cancer and mental health conditions:

  • Cancer rates among firefighters aged between 35 and 39 are 323 per cent higher than in the general population in the same age group.
  • Firefighters with at least 15 years’ experience are 1.7 times more likely to develop cancer than those with less service.
  • Firefighters are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer if they notice soot in their throat or nose or remain in contaminated personal protective equipment for more than four hours after attending a fire.

As well as causing cancer, exposure to smoke can also lead to respiratory distress, impaired judgment, and disorientation during critical operations, while long-term effects include chronic respiratory diseases and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, it’s not just smoke that poses a risk to firefighters. An inferno can weaken the structure of the affected building, causing ceilings and walls to collapse, which releases dust into the air. This, too, poses a serious risk to firefighters. A study reported in the New York Times of 5,000 first responders following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 found that:

  • Every single worker in the study had impaired lung functions, the worst of which was among firefighters.
  • Firefighters developed lung impairment within 12 months of the incident and experienced no improvement after six years.
  • One-fifth of workers were classed as having a permanent respiratory disability.
  • Firefighters who attended the World Trade Center attacks were 13 per cent more likely to develop cancer than colleagues who did not.

The perils faced by firefighters and first responders are multifaceted. From raging infernos to chemical spills, the most serious dangers may not even be visible. In hazardous environments, it is crucial that Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) provides uncompromising protection, with no risk of poorly fitting masks that allow firefighters to accidentally inhale unfiltered air that is heavily laden with harmful contaminants. 

What Is Quantitative Face Fit Testing?

Quantitative Face Fit Testing, or QNFT, is a meticulous process aimed at determining if a specific model or size of respirator or BA mask is suitable for an individual and will achieve a snug fit over their mouth and nose. It is essential because the human face is rarely identical but comes in many shapes and sizes.

QNFT utilises specialist equipment to measure the amount of leakage into the respirator, by detecting and quantifying ambient particles or using negative pressure. The goal is to ensure that the chosen respirator creates a tight seal on the user’s face, preventing the ingress of harmful substances such as smoke, dust, and fumes.

Unlike Qualitative Face Fit Testing, which relies on subjective assessments of a mask user’s ability to smell or taste unusual substances and is, therefore, vulnerable to misunderstandings, QNFT is underpinned by demonstrable data that ensures there is less room for error. 

  • Individualised Protection: Quantitative Face Fit Testing tailors respirator selection to each user’s facial structure, ensuring an airtight seal and personalised protection.

  • Accurate Measurements: QNFT employs precise instruments to quantify mask leakage, guaranteeing effective defence against respirable hazards.

  • Legal Compliance: QNFT helps organisations comply with health and safety regulations, ensuring they provide adequate respiratory protection to employees in accordance with the law.

  • Reduced Health Risks: By minimising the risk of exposure to respirable hazards, QNFT lowers the potential for long-term health issues such as breathing disorders and cancer.

  • Enhanced Confidence: QNFT instils confidence in users who will know that their RPE has undergone rigorous testing and offers reliable protection in hazardous environments.

What Does The Law Say About The Protection Of Emergency Workers?

Beyond safety concerns, there are legal obligations that organisations should consider when ensuring RPE is suited to the needs of each individual firefighter.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) emphasises the need for employers to provide their employees with effective protection in dangerous environments. This means ensuring that RPE is:

  • Appropriate for the specific hazard at the time of use.

  • Suited to the user’s face, the task, and the working environment.

Masks and respirators that have undergone expert face fit testing provide reassurance that a proper seal can be achieved, thereby demonstrating that adequate protection as required by law can be achieved.

When Should Fit Testing Be Carried Out?

Face fit testing should be conducted before a respirator is used for the first time. The same make, model, size, and type of facepiece used in the test should be available to the employee every time it is needed during operations. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), users should be clean-shaven as beards and facial hair can interfere with the quality of the fit.

The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) advises that RPE should be checked for its fit annually if it is the primary means of protection. However, the fit test should be repeated whenever there is a change in the type of RPE being used, alterations in the user’s facial characteristics, or any other factors that may impact the effectiveness of the face seal. For example, the introduction of head-worn personal protective equipment (PPE), such as helmets, or communication devices could interfere with the mask during usage.

Do Records Of Fit Testing Need To Be Kept?

The importance of meticulous record-keeping cannot be overstated. Employers are responsible for maintaining records of fit tests, which should include essential information such as the user’s name, the type of fit test conducted, the make and model of RPE used, and the test results.

Furthermore, it is crucial that the face fit test is overseen by a competent fit test technician to ensure it is carried out competently and in accordance with regulations. One method of demonstrating this competence is through a Fit2Fit qualification, which ensures that the technician possesses the necessary skills and knowledge to conduct accurate and reliable face fit tests and meets the standards and protocols described in HSE INDG 479 for fit test operators.

Contact Us For Expert Face Fit Advice And Training

A well-fitted and tested respirator is a lifeline for firefighters in smoke and flames. For more information about our expert face fit testing services and training, please get in touch today.

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