Protecting firefighter eye protection

For eye-protection devices to do their job, they must be protected from the threats common on a fireground

Each year more than 700,000 Americans injure their eyes at work according to Prevent Blindness America.

Faceshields, safety glasses and goggles are essential components of a firefighter's personal protective equipment ensemble because work safety experts say proper protective eyewear could prevent up to 90 percent of all eye injuries.

Faceshield/goggle components that are part of the firefighter helmet must meet the performance standards in NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2013 Edition. To comply with NFPA 1971, faceshield /goggle components must also comply with the requirements of ANSI Z87.1-2010, the American National Standard for Occupational and Educational Personal Face and Eye Protection.

For your faceshield or goggles to be of maximum value, you obviously must be able to see through them. The following excerpt is from NFPA 1971-A.6.5.2.

Many helmet designs expose the faceshield/goggle component(s) to abrasion, heat, flame, and particulate contamination. Purchasers might wish to specify a means of protecting the component(s). This could include, but not be limited to, faceshield/goggle components that retract inside the helmet, and coverings for the component(s) that are inherently resistant to the firefighting environment. Fire departments should consider the health risks associated with contaminated goggles coming in direct contact with the wearer's face. Goggles do not have to be attached to the helmet.

From this brief section of the standard, comes four important items that need further exploration.

1. Protected goggles
Far too many firefighters still expose their goggles to the effects of heat and smoke by carrying them on top of their helmet, either up front or over the back brim. Goggles carried in such an unprotected manner will more quickly degrade over time.

In addition, the goggles are absorbing gaseous and particulate contaminants with every exposure to heat, smoke and fire gases.

2. Appropriate protection
Fire department leaders should specify the appropriate faceshield/goggle component protection during the specification process when purchasing firefighting personal protective equipment.

Further, fire department leaders should include the proper storage and care for faceshields and goggles in their standard operating guidelines for firefighting PPE.

3. Ensure compliance
In developing those SOGs, fire department leaders should seek the input of the end users to identify the protective option that will obtain the greatest degree of compliance.

In the case of faceshields, fire department leaders should give close consideration to those protective options that will enable better compliance. One example is faceshields that retract into the crown of the helmet.

4. Exposure protection
The body of knowledge concerning firefighter cancers and the skin absorption risk from PPE contaminated with the by-products of combustion is growing larger every day.

There is particular attention given to the head, neck and face — areas the structural firefighting ensemble provides only minimal protection from particulate absorption through the skin. The fire-resistant hood, which has no vapor barrier, is the weak link.

Fire department SOGs for the care and use of PPE should emphasize this exposure risk and how firefighters can minimize the potential exposure risk by keeping their protective firefighting goggles clean and unexposed to heat, smoke and fire gases.

NFPA testing
With the adoption of the 2013 edition of NFPA 1971, faceshield/goggle components that are attached to the firefighting helmet must pass the flame-resistance test in order for the entire helmet to comply with the provisions of NFPA 1971.

That test procedure takes a test specimen of the faceshield/goggle components that is then attached to the appropriate test fixture so that the lower edge of the specimen is exposed.

The specimen is then exposed to a flame from a propane-fueled Bunsen burner, which has an inner cone (of the flame) temperature of 2,192 degrees F (± 180 degrees F). The flame is maintained at the test point of the faceshield or goggle component at an angle of 45 degrees (± 10 degrees). After 15 seconds ± 1 second, the flame is removed and the duration of the after-flame is measured and recorded.

This does not mean that NFPA-compliant faceshield or goggles are designed for continual exposure to the heat and by-products of combustion. It means that those components have passed the test by demonstrating the ability to survive a catastrophic exposure to heat and flame in a very controlled environment.

Keeping clean
Whenever possible, follow the manufacturer's guidelines for the proper cleaning of you protective faceshield or goggles, including the appropriate cleaning solutions that will clean the surfaces without harming them in the process.

For example, repeatedly using ammonia-based window cleaner to clean your polycarbonate or Lexan faceshield is a sure way to eventually cause fogging that will decrease your visibility.

Commercial cleaning solutions specifically designed for cleaning protective eyewear and faceshields come in bulk containers as well as pre-packaged small moistened towels. Another option is to use an environmentally sensitive degreaser and cleaner such as Simple Green.

In response to my inquiry on their Facebook page, MSA Safety recommends Confidence Plus Germicidal Cleaner for all MSA products, including faceshields, goggles, and SCBA facepieces.

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