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Research by the FIRST Project Characterizes Situational Pressures that Influence Firefighters' Decision Making about Personal Protective Equipment

Why don’t people do things they know they should?  Whether it be eating fruits and vegetables, wearing a seat belt, or practicing safe procedures during risky operations, people show they know how to stay healthy and safe, but still make the opposite choice. In an American Journal of Health Behavior article the FIRST project at the Dornsife School of Public Health delved into the cultural aspects of firefighter safety. Supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to develop a culture of safety survey in the fire service, this sub-study used that data to examine firefighters’ decision-making around the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the job.

The study was conducted by the research team of Jennifer Taylor, PhD, MPH, CPPS and Andrea Davis, MPH (2012), CPH in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.  Michael Maglio, MPH (2015) led the investigation during his first year practicum in Drexel’s MPH program.  PPE is a usual requirement in hazardous work environments and is often provided and maintained by the employer.  However, it is commonly known that firefighters refrain from wearing their PPE even when they know it protects them. FIRST analyzed data collected from focus groups and interviews with 123 firefighters from across the United States.  The results posit that theories of social identity, influential situations, and safety behaviors play a significant role in the decision-making of workers in the fire service. 

Firefighters’ spoke of how their identity as a firefighter, social and individual pressures, and avoiding certain situations challenged them to use their PPE properly and practice safe behavior.  For example, when firefighters drive excessively fast to the scene of a fire due to the social and individual pressure to arrive first, they often make the decision to get dressed in their PPE en route in the truck without a seatbelt on, rather than at the station. This gets them to the scene seconds faster, but also puts them at risk of being ejected from the truck should they get into a motor vehicle accident. The investigators also examined what behaviors support safety, with firefighters’ telling stories of individual will and organizational support that assisted them in complying with safe behaviors.  Such an instance is demonstrated by a firefighter who chose to keep wearing his self-contained breathing apparatus in a smoky environment, even though the rest of his crew encouraged him to remove it and assured him he did not need to continue using it. Using qualitative inquiry, the team was able to examine situations in which PPE use is both practiced and neglected while adding to our understanding of perceptions and social norms within the fire service. 

This article was a collaborative effort of the FIRST project at Drexel with Dr. Cliff Scott of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Organizational Science and Communication Studies, and Dr. Joseph Allen of University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Dr. Taylor trained in the field of injury prevention and control and uses its principles to address safety issues related high risk industries. Dr. Taylor received her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management and her MPH in Health Services from the Boston University School of Public Health.  Dr. Taylor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health.

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Read "Situational Pressures that Influence Firefighters' Decision Making about Personal Protective Equipment: A Qualitative Analysis"

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