Posted on March 2 2014

Protecting Firefighters, in the US and the UK

ADAO reported in October 2013 the findings from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study of firefighters that showed a rate of mesothelioma two times higher than that of the general population. The NIOSH study was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, studied cancer incidence among nearly 30,000 firefighters in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia who were employed between 1950 and 2009.

John Maggs

John Maggs, Avon FBU H&S Coordinator

“For a long time, I was concerned about firefighters’ exposure to toxins,” explained John Maggs, Health and Safety Coordinator for the Avon Fire and Rescue Service in the UK,  “initially through not wearing a breathing apparatus at vehicle fires, when smoke could easily be inhaled.  It seemed to be accepted practice.” Maggs designed and delivered an educational presentation for firefighters and drafted proposals to change operational procedures.  As a result, the rate of firefighters wearing a breathing apparatus has risen from less than 10% to about 90%.  “A great success,” he added

Read more about John and his wonderful work to keep UK firefighters safe, why he became a firefighter, and how is uses social media to connect and share invaluable information in the UK and around the world.

Cheers to the friends we meet on Twitter.  Join the conversation and follow us at @john_maggsfbu and  @Linda_ADAO.

Linda Reinstein

Social Networks


ADAO Exclusive interview with John Maggs

REINSTEIN: Please tell us about your job as Health and Safety Coordinator.

MAGGS: My role is to keep in contact with all the workplace Fire Brigades Union Safety representatives, keeping them updated with any changes that may affect their members (such as operational procedures or new equipment). I represent our members at various committees and forums such as strategic health & safety committee, operational meetings with management, and regional FBU health & safety committees. I also consult with management on all significant health and safety changes and relay important information back to our members.

REINSTEIN: What motivated you to become a firefighter?

MAGGS: A number of things motivated me to become a firefighter. First, it’s a worthwhile job helping the community as well as being in a position which gains their respect.  Second, it is also a post where I was judged on my practical skills rather than my lack of academic qualifications. Finally, it was considered to be a career with fairly decent pay and a decent pension at the end.

REINSTEIN: How long have you been a firefighter?

It will be 25 years in March, the last 6 months as a Crew Manager (in charge of an appliance with 5 firefighters).

REINSTEIN: As the Health and Safety Coordinator for Avon FBU (Fire Brigades Union) representing approximately 700 members, what do you do to help firefighters?

MAGGS: In consulting with management on health, safety & welfare issues, I take a positive and constructive attitude. Therefore, in addition to bringing issues to attention I also assist in looking for solutions and help with investigations.  This way our members feel things are done in their best interest and they can approach me with their concerns as I can usually tell them why changes are being made.  I also help individuals when I can, for example, visiting members when they are on long-term sick leave or if they want to talk about anything confidentially with someone who isn’t a manager.

REINSTEIN: What safety precautions and regulations do firefighters have in the UK? Do you feel this needs to be improved? If so, how?

MAGGS: The basis for safety regulations, bound by law in the Health & Safety at Work act, is fairly robust with a lot of responsibility placed on principle managers.  In particular, there are very good regulations for the protection of union safety reps, such as myself, where managers have to keep us informed of significant changes, invite us to H&S committees and, best of all, give us paid leave to attend H&S courses leading to meaningful qualifications.  I have a Diploma in H&S as a result of this. The many regulations and statutory instruments to the Act, mainly come from European Union legislation.  These regulations cover many aspects of fire service work such as respiratory protection. There are moves by the Government, however, to water down current regulations on the grounds that productivity is being held back by “red tape”.

Specifically for fire services there have been national standards for training, equipment and procedures consulted and agreed to by stakeholders, including FBU as a recognized body.  This sets frameworks for fire services to work within.  Although not bound by law, if these standards were not reached and there was a death, the responsible fire service would have to justify it in court.  The problem now is that more and more of the responsibility is being devolved to local fire services who are being given smaller budgets from central government.  Across the UK, standards are being lowered.  A few years back, FBU commissioned a report of the consequences of this, which concluded that firefighter deaths have increased since devolution started. This is currently affecting Breathing Apparatus procedures; if these standards drop and BA is not worn as often, the long term damage can be catastrophic, meaning firefighters will start suffering from respiratory diseases well into retirement, but not counting as “on duty” death.  For a Union rep this is very frustrating.  The report only touched upon long term health risks but acknowledged that this was also an area of concern.

REINSTEIN: How do your H & S regulations differ from the USA?

MAGGS: I’m not sure how these differ from USA regulations.  However, historically UK firefighters had far more stringent BA procedures than their US counterparts.  I suspect we have swapped places in recent years.  Certainly you are more aware of long term health risks than UK.

REINSTEIN: At ADAO, asbestos victims unite with a strong voice, to tell their stories. Please share a story (or stories) of a firefighter in the U.K. who was diagnosed with cancer later in life.

MAGGS: The USA is way ahead of UK here.  There has been very little research carried out in UK regarding long term illnesses of firefighters.  In a lot of the studying I have carried out I have had to rely on US research for evidence.  As a consequence, it is unknown how many retired firefighters are diagnosed with cancer in later life, and extremely difficult to prove any disease is work related.  Any employer will fight tooth and nail to ensure they are not blamed.  Although cases have been proven in many industries, I have not ever come across where a claim has been successful against a fire service.  That said, sadly I have known many retired firefighters who have developed many forms of cancer, many of whom have died before their time.

REINSTEIN: Please tell us more of your own story. What is it like to be a firefighter? Is there one instance in your career that changed your life?

MAGGS: A firefighter’s role can be extremely demanding at times, and occasionally very frightening.  It means keeping your wits about you in very hostile conditions either in a hot and dangerous fire or a stressful environment such as a road traffic collision.  To cope with this we have a very demanding training regime.  The modern firefighter also has to have the skill of addressing the public at community safety events, as the quantity of fires reduces, this work is becoming more important.

Probably the one instance that changed me was completing a diploma in H&S.  In carrying out the project described above, I grew in confidence by learning new skills in researching, report writing and public speaking.  The whole project has made me realize skills I never thought I had.  In particular I discovered I am dyslexic which explained why I never did particularly well at school.  Since this discovery I have been able to put coping mechanisms in place.

REINSTEIN: What inspired you to raise awareness about the effect of toxins on firefighters?

MAGGS: For a long time I was concerned about Firefighters’ exposure, initially through not wearing breathing apparatus at vehicle fires, when smoke could easily be inhaled.  It seemed to be accepted practice.  I had an opportunity to address this when, as part of a diploma course, I had to identify a workplace hazard, work out a solution and submit a report.  I followed this through by designing a presentation to deliver to firefighters and also drafting proposals to change operational procedures.  With support from my employer, I was able to carry this through.  The rate of wearing BA has risen from less than 10% to about 90%.  A great success.  I’m now looking at other ways of reducing exposure as a long term project.

REINSTEIN: What could we do in America to support your efforts?  

MAGGS: From the work I’ve carried out, I have seen a different attitude to protecting firefighters in the long term by researching and addressing health problems and their causes.  This sort of research has never been carried out in the UK.  I ask that this important work be continued and shared with the international community as it has been.  This will undoubtedly save many firefighters lives around the world.

REINSTEIN: Do you have a message for the HSE?

MAGGS: To be fair, there are a lot of passionate and knowledgeable people working for HSE.  My own experience is of people doing their best to offer advice.  The problem is the limited resources they have and an ever decreasing budget.  My message is to the Government:  The spending cuts to HSE must be reversed.  Giving them a bigger budget allowing for more H&S inspectors will mean a healthier, safer and fitter national workforce.  With this we will see fewer long term illnesses and injuries, less spent in welfare benefits and fewer compensation claims, making the added expenditure cost effective.  I would also say to stop the proposed so-called “cuts to red tape” with H&S, that would change regulations and reduce safety responsibilities.  This may include reducing the rights of safety reps such as myself, who play an important role in the workplace.  Statistics show there are fewer accidents in workplaces with an active safety rep.  These proposed changes are supposed to help businesses grow in times of austerity but in reality it’s about cutting costs and increasing profits.

REINSTEIN: When did you begin using social media for your H & S work?

MAGGS: About six months ago I started using Twitter to keep in touch with the latest developments in a pension dispute FBU is currently going through.  I quickly found I was using the site for spreading H&S messages to firefighters and other useful contacts.

REINSTEIN: What are the strengths and weakness in using social media?

MAGGS: Once I built up contacts with firefighters, union reps and experts (such as yourself), I found it to be a useful tool for exchanging messages and occasionally email addresses where ideas and expertise can be shared.  It’s also possible to exchange information with a diverse range of people who can give different viewpoints and make you see things in a different light.  The downside is the rare occurrences of unacceptable behavior. I don’t have a problem with debating with people who have a different viewpoint from me but sometimes this can get abusive and personal.


John Maggs BIO

John has been employed by Avon Fire & Rescue Service (AF&RS) for 25 years.  He has previously served 12 years as a firefighter at Temple fire station followed by 12 years at Speedwell, both in Bristol, England. Last year he was promoted to Crew Manager and currently serves in that role at Brislington fire station also in Bristol.

For the past eight years John has held the post of Health and Safety Coordinator for Avon FBU (Fire Brigades Union) representing approximately 700 members on health, safety and welfare issues.  In addition he is currently Avon FBU’s Brigade Organizer.

John is particularly concerned about the recent rise in incident-related firefighter deaths. Not only are many firefighters exposed to hazardous situations due to the nature of their jobs, but they are also exposed to many toxins throughout their career. This certainly leads to numerous deaths, often long after retirement. Due to this passion, he designed and carried out a project, supported by AF&RS, that led to a vast increase in the wearing of breathing apparatus at various types of fire incidents.  He has also brought to AF&RS’s attention many health and safety issues leading to, and often assisting with, improvements in operational procedures, including an update in procedures for dealing with incidents where the presence of asbestos is suspected.