Firefighters ‒ one of the most cancer-prone occupations

Press release, 21st June 2016, Helsinki, Finland

A recent study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) reports that the exposure of smoke-diving firefighters to carcinogenic agents is too high. 

Smoke-divers are one of the occupational groups that are most exposed to naphthalene. Their levels of exposure to pyrenes and benzene also exceed the action limit value. Fire and rescue departments should immediately take action to reduce these exposures.

Firefighters’ exposure during extinguishing tasks does not only occur when they smoke-dive, but also during clearing up at the scene after the fire, during their return to the fire station in their firefighting garments, during firefighting equipment maintenance, and when they are in equipment storerooms. If protective equipment is not sufficient, their exposure at the site of the fire may be even higher than that during smoke-diving.

The study found that exposure caused changes in the firefighters’ bodies. Exposure led to a rise in their inflammatory markers and the release of stress hormones.

Juha Laitinen, FIOH’s senior research scientist in charge of the study, emphasizes that in order to reduce exposure, firefighters and their supervisors should be trained in the correct procedures and in protection from chemicals, both in the field and later, during the maintenance of equipment. Health care services also play an important role in prevention.

”Firefighters should be recorded in the ASA Register, and their health status should be more closely monitored,” Laitinen stresses.

The ASA register, maintained by FIOH, is a list of workers whose health must be monitored more precisely due to an increased risk of cancer. To date, only individual firefighters have been recorded in the register.

“Procedure guidelines should be drawn up for exceptional exposure situations, and an ‘exposure account’ should be established so that the exposure of firefighters and those working in the maintenance of firefighting equipment can be registered as closely as by the hour,” continues Laitinen.

The study examined whether the exposure of the ‘Skellefteå model’ firefighters was lower than that of those following the conventional model. The Skellefteå model, developed in Sweden, separates contaminated equipment and tools after a mission for transportation to the fire station for cleaning. The model has succeeded in reducing total exposure as well as exposure through contact. But Laitinen says that the method needs to be adapted to meet the needs of Finnish fire and rescue departments.

“‘Protection zones’ need to be set up at the scene of a fire, and guidance should be given on how firefighters can protect themselves within these zones. Recommendations for the protection level and cleaning technology used for the fire equipment must be appropriate for the fire class in which the equipment has been contaminated.”

Laitinen’s “Can the Skellefteå model reduce firefighters’ exposure to chemical agents in operative work?” project studied a total of six fire stations from the regional fire and rescue departments of Central Finland, Central Uusimaa, Northern Savonia, and Helsinki.

The project was initiated by the Finnish Association of Fire Fighters, who played an active part in the steering group. The project was funded by the Fire Protection Fund, the Finnish Work Environment Fund and FIOH. The Finnish Association of Fire Officers, the Finnish National Rescue Association SPEK and the Emergency Services College were also involved in the project.

Link to research report

Want to know more? Contact:

Juha Laitinen, Senior Research Scientist, FIOH, tel. +358 40 5023 714, Juha.Laitinen[at]

Media Services

Kristiina Kulha, Head of Communications
FIOH, Helsinki
Tel. +358 30 474 2551, +358 40 548 6914, 

Tiina Kaksonen, Co-ordinator, Communications 
FIOH, Oulu
Tel. +358 30 474 3015, +358 50 364 3158

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) researches, develops and specializes in well-being at work. It promotes occupational health and safety and the well-being of workers. It is an independent institution under public law, working under the administrative sector of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. It has five regional offices, and its headquarters are in Helsinki. The number of personnel is about 560.


About Us

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) is a multidisciplinary research and specialist organization that focuses on well-being at work, research, advisory services and training. Together with our clients, we develop good work communities and safe working environments and support employee well-being. Our clients include workplaces, decision-makers, individuals, occupational health service units, and other parties working to improve well-being at work. We operate under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health as an independent legal entity, and have around 500 employees. We have offices in Helsinki, Kuopio, Oulu, Tampere, and Turku. See our website for further information: @FIOH