Ensuring safety and health for junior firefighters: NIOSH guidance

May 14, 2024
junior firefighters in training

NIOSH highlights lessons from investigations

In April 2024, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released “Keeping Junior Firefighters Safe and Healthy: The Fire Department’s Role in Promoting Positive Childhood Experiences.”

As reported by the US Fire Administration, the publication summarizes lessons from eight NIOSH investigations conducted since 2000.

These investigations focused on junior firefighters, also known as explorers or cadets, aged 14 to 17 years.

The report highlights two key lessons for fire departments to ensure the safety of junior firefighter programs.

First, it is crucial to follow child labor laws and develop standard operating procedures that reflect these requirements.

Second, providing and ensuring the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential.

Historically, junior firefighter programs have been valuable for recruitment and retention in the fire service, while also promoting positive childhood experiences through safe practices.

Child labor laws and standard operating procedures

Junior firefighter programs have been identified as beneficial for both recruitment and retention in the fire service.

These programs, involving youth aged 14 to 17, can positively impact their lives through work-based learning experiences.

However, these programs also pose risks to participants’ safety and health.

NIOSH’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) has conducted eight investigations involving junior firefighters since 2000.

The findings emphasize the need for fire departments to adhere to child labor laws specific to junior firefighters.

It is essential to develop, implement, and enforce standard operating procedures (SOPs) detailing the permitted and prohibited activities for junior firefighters.

Providing and ensuring the use of PPE

The NIOSH report stresses the importance of providing junior firefighters with appropriate PPE.

In six investigation reports, the need for proper PPE usage was highlighted.

Situations involving failure to use seat belts and responding to fire alarms without appropriate PPE were addressed.

NIOSH encourages fire departments to ensure junior firefighters are equipped with suitable PPE for their tasks.

Proper training on the use and care of PPE, including its limitations, is also essential.

Additionally, fire departments should consider making PPE use, such as seat belts, mandatory for junior firefighters.

Promoting positive experiences for junior firefighters

Creating positive experiences for junior firefighters involves recognizing the differences between junior and adult firefighters.

Adolescents experience rapid developments that can affect their understanding of physical limitations and risks.

Peer influence and a desire to serve the community can lead junior firefighters to engage in prohibited activities.

Providing junior firefighters with positive mentors can instill necessary restraint and discipline.

Junior firefighters should be under direct supervision of an adult firefighter when performing permitted activities.

The supervising adult must be knowledgeable about the prohibited tasks and ensure junior firefighters are not assigned inappropriate duties, even in resource-limited situations.

Resources for junior firefighter programs

Fire departments play a significant role in promoting positive experiences for junior firefighters by ensuring their safety.

The NIOSH report outlines that participation in these programs can have substantial benefits, including work-based learning experiences that shape adolescents into responsible adults.

Junior firefighter programs offer a sense of belonging, accomplishment, and positive, lifelong connections with peers and mentors.

Supporting the health and safety of junior firefighters requires a time and resource commitment.

The National Volunteer Fire Council’s National Junior Firefighter Program and NIOSH’s Young Worker Safety and Health webpages provide additional resources for fire departments to develop and maintain safe junior firefighter programs.

FSJA comment

The publication of “Keeping Junior Firefighters Safe and Healthy” by NIOSH highlights critical steps fire departments can take to ensure the safety and well-being of their youngest members.

The emphasis on following child labor laws and providing appropriate PPE is a reminder of the importance of structured and safe environments for junior firefighters.

Implementing these guidelines can help fire departments foster positive experiences for adolescents while minimizing risks.

The historical significance of junior firefighter programs in recruitment and retention underscores their value.

By adhering to NIOSH’s recommendations, fire departments can continue to offer beneficial work-based learning opportunities.

These programs can positively influence adolescents’ development, encouraging them to become responsible and caring adults.

Fire departments are encouraged to utilize available resources to support the implementation of these safety measures.

The National Volunteer Fire Council and NIOSH provide valuable information to help ensure the health and safety of junior firefighters, contributing to the overall effectiveness and sustainability of these programs.

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