Safety at Work
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Safety at Work Report

We explore the subject of safety in the workplace in 2021.


PPE in a Pandemic

Brian HeslerBy Brian Hesler6 May 2021

Brian Hesler, Consultant and Specialist Advisor at Draeger Safety UK and former Chief Fire Officer for the Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service, discusses the lessons the industry has learned from the PPE supply challenges that resulted from the unprecedented demand during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The Covid-19 Pandemic brought about unprecedented demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as the Fire Services realised the amount of equipment needed to protect their firefighters in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While there are numerous variants of PPE, in this instance we are focusing on respiratory protection equipment (RPE) such as self-contained breathing apparatus and respiratory masks.

The key supply challenges in the wake of the outbreak was that there was very limited resilience stock. This meant that kit did not only need to be located, allocated and delivered, but also it needed to be put on a production line and physically manufactured. Modern, lean manufacturing processes have provided efficiencies that mean in usual circumstances retaining large amounts of stock is not necessary or considered efficient, as it costs the fire services money to store. This issue is magnified to extraordinary levels when Governments are prioritising the manufacture and delivery of limited key products for the Health and Care sectors.

Fire Services also had to prepare for PPE equipment to be cleaned more regularly and more thoroughly. Regular, consistent and thorough cleaning and drying processes not only take time and use higher quantities of cleaning agents, but they also take equipment out of use for a period of time, further compounding the issue of availability.

I believe there are significant lessons that as an industry we need to learn from. Both suppliers and Fire and Rescue Services need to have robust measures in place to mitigate any future supply challenges. These measures will not only protect us from Covid-19 and future pandemics, but also any large and significant incident that creates a spike in demand, such as the Grenfell tragedy or the Novichok nerve agent incident in Salisbury.

At Dräger, we’re working with our customers to create ‘Pandemic Preparedness’ plans that include innovative ideas to ensure that fire services have stock holdings, without having to commit to purchase, thus protecting public sector budgets that cannot afford to procure kit  in advance of when it is needed. We were already using our historic data to support fire services in creating risk assessments, but they do not generally go as far as product supply – this is what we’re now working to change.

We have also taken the significant step to vastly expand our capacity for manufacturing respiratory masks with new facilities in the UK, US, and France in addition to production networks already in existence in Sweden and South Africa. Perhaps more importantly, we will be able to increase volumes quickly, responding flexibly to international demands with a networked response, as well as national and local requirements.

In addition to planning and production capacity, the Covid-19 pandemic has further cemented the importance of our role as medical and safety technology manufacturers in sharing technical expertise. It has also cemented our role in communicating the importance of having the necessary procedures to ensure equipment is clean and well-maintained. This was never-more pertinent than at the start of the pandemic, when we were inundated with enquiries on how much disinfectant was required, length of time kit should be submerged, and whether such cleaning could result in kit going brittle.

To this end, we have launched our Health for the Firefighter campaign that is helping us to drive a significant culture shift that takes us away from firefighters wearing soiled/dirty kit like a badge of honour, and instead realises the importance of clean and well-maintained kit.

Overall, the pandemic has taught us that equipment needs to protect firefighters against a range of ‘traditional’ hazards – smoke, pollution and flames – but also a series of new challenges, including bacteria, viruses and all other contaminants.