Not Tracking Exposures for Your Firefighters Can be a Costly Mistake

Exposure in firefighting is a complex topic, and much of the discussion centers on what departments do to protect their personnel from smoke, toxic chemicals, or other workplace hazards that are known to cause health problems.

When talking about exposure tracking, it is impossible to forget the individuals—people who might be suffering after exposure gave them long-term health problems.

But agencies must also protect themselves if only so they can keep serving communities that need them.

Though it isn’t the most common lawsuit a fire department might face (see a breakdown here), the unfortunate reality is that firefighters can and do sue their current and former employers when they feel enough hasn’t been done to protect their health.

In recent years, firefighters have been involved in lawsuits regarding fire foam, asbestos, chemical irritants, and even COVID-19.

Collecting precise, encompassing, and accurate records on the details of hazardous exposures minimizes the threat of lawsuits and even helps departments provide better care to at-risk personnel.

The evolving definition of exposure and legal risk

The COVID-19 pandemic added another exposure risk that could put fire departments at risk of litigation. Earlier in the pandemic, the Atlantic City Firefighters Union sued its city and state after an alleged lack of support and policy exposed up to 65 firefighters to the illness.

In another ongoing lawsuit, the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) in firefighting foams has resulted in countless claims related to adverse health outcomes.

In the US Fire Administration’s whitepaper on this topic, the organization makes a fairly straightforward claim with several legal ramifications for fire departments:

“Because they cannot be held responsible for hazards that might be present where their work must be performed, fire departments […] have a different relationship with occupational risk than any other type of organization.”

The various facets of this unique risk include:

  • The lack of control over what’s happening on the firegrounds before emergency services arrival
  • The presumption of risk as part of the job
  • Relevant OSHA regulations fire services can look to when they attempt to mitigate various levels of risk

Behind all of this is the idea—stated verbatim in the paper—that “documentation is essential.”

In other words, when so many factors are beyond your agency’s control, it’s essential to prove that you were doing everything you could at the time of exposure.

Ultimately, there are two situations where documentation is essential from a risk-management perspective:

Lawsuits where there is hard evidence of exposure

An agency that has done its due diligence to maintain and provide complete records of all relevant exposures—and encourages individual firefighters to submit their exposures as well—exhibits competency and care, which can be crucial in the courtroom.

This is especially true if the agency took documented steps to mitigate exposure effects before the appearance of illness or other undesirable outcomes—such as suggesting employees in a high-risk group receive an esoteric cancer screening that goes beyond the standard set of annual tests.

Lawsuits without clear evidence

In other cases, a claimant may feel an illness they developed later in life was related to hazardous exposure earlier in their firefighting career, despite a lack of clear science linking the two or without evidence that the firefighter encountered the hazardous material in question.

When an agency has deep, reliable records showing other types of exposure, making correct links and dismissing incorrect ones becomes easier.

Why you need a software system designed to track exposures

When examining exposure tracking through the lens of risk management, legally defensible exposure recordkeeping is a must. And while small fire agencies might try to get by with paper files, dedicated software systems will produce better, more reliable records.

A lack of standardized procedure is a historical reason individuals and agencies haven’t consistently tracked all the exposure they should.

Therefore, your exposure tracker’s ability to integrate with your other recordkeeping software makes looking up and reporting exposure-related data quick and easy.

That means features like tagged group reporting, incident-based tracking, and documentable remediation should be built into the tools individuals and units use to collect exposure data.

A digital tracking tool like the Acadis® Network Exposure Tracker gives you the ability to balance keeping your firefighters and your organization protected by reducing unnecessary exposure to risk.

Individual firefighters can use the exposure tracker provided by their employer to quickly and easily report exposure to common hazards, which can help them if they ever need to prove exposure for medical benefits. At the same time, agencies can use the tool to build deep documentation that can help them address health concerns before they become more severe and demonstrate their efforts if legal disagreements arise.

Because when it comes to firefighter exposures, documentation is everything.

Record it, or it didn’t happen. Get started with Acadis Network Exposure Tracker

Interested in the free Exposure Tracker from Acadis®?

Posted on Nov 11, 2021