The risks of a first-response career don’t stop in the firegrounds or at an active crime scene. Secondary health effects, mental wellness barriers, and other life-altering challenges can carry through to almost any facet of a public safety professional’s day-to-day life, and the potential for toxic exposures adds another tragically common danger. Becoming ill days, weeks, years, or even decades after initial contact is a very real risk, and one to which the industry at large could always pay more time, attention, and money.
From 9/11 to COVID-19: The changing concept of “exposure”
Historically, firefighters have carried the brunt of this risk, with sustained, frequent exposure to airborne carcinogens in smoke a major source of health concerns across the industry. Events such as the (now thankfully resolved) push to get 9/11 responders coverage for exposure-related illnesses further raised this problem into the public consciousness.
However, 2020 has changed many things, and the biggest is the introduction of COVID-19 to the world stage: While illnesses ranging from flus and bacterial infections to bloodborne pathogens have always been of major concern across the public safety spectrum, this coronavirus has fundamentally altered—or, more accurately, added to—the ways that organizations must respond to the phenomenon of exposure. This year, on-the-job coronavirus infections have been responsible nationally for more police officer deaths than gun violence, car accidents, and all other causes combined.
There are no easy answers to this set of problems, but history, not to mention the American notions of fair play and due compensation, favors those organizations with the good sense to take care of their people.
How do individuals and organizations track exposure types?
Organizations that normally track every boots-on-ground employee’s exposure to well-known long-term illness risk factors such as carcinogens may struggle to manage shorter-term exposures to COVID-19. They may also not initially recognize the potential for long-term effects from COVID-19—and because they are not yet well understood. This only increases the need to track exposures, even if health doesn’t initially appear to be significantly affected by an exposure.
The exposure types that individuals and organizations typically track include proximity to toxic substances, mental health traumas, hazardous heat and noise, and biological exposures (the category in which potential COVID-19 exposures and other communicable diseases should be tracked).
Better tools empower better tracking
Finally, then, public safety organizations concerned about illness and toxin exposure—and that should be all of them—must strongly consider their current exposure-tracking processes and the tools that support them.
What do your employees currently do to alert the organization to potential exposures? How does the organization manage these, both in the short term and over time? Do your employees know how and where to track COVID-19 exposures? Do they know to track these exposures now, even if they’re not currently sick?
Most importantly, does the current selection of tools for your agency or department leave you wishing you could do a lot more for the people you’re supposed to support?