UC research studies heat in working environments

By Claudia Doman
Friday, 01 August, 2014

University of Canberra PhD candidate Anthony Walker is studying what physical attributes make firefighters work better in extremely hot conditions and how to maximise their recovery once the fire has been put out. Walker, who has been a firefighter for nine years, is exploring the acute and chronic effects of heat exposure on the physiology of firefighters.

UC PhD student Anthony Walker is researching how chronic heat affects firefighters. Photo: Michelle McAulay

“Firefighters are constantly being exposed to extreme heat, wearing the same gear regardless of whether they are fighting a house fire or rescuing casualties from a crushed vehicle,” Walker said. “And although firefighters are exposed to different types of heat, such as hot air and contact with hot surfaces or the heat produced by their bodies during the emergency operations, they rarely cool down properly.”

Determined to change and improve current work practices, Walker has been conducting comprehensive tests at an emergency services training facility in the south of Canberra during the past year.

In partnership with the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency and the ACT Government, Walker is examining firefighters’ performance during simulated firefighting tasks to measure individual responses to working in the heat, including increased thermal strain.

The assessments include a blood test conducted at the end of the exercise that will allow an appreciation of acute and chronic inflammatory responses.

The aim of these tests is to understand the toll that repeated exposure to high-heat environments places on individual firefighters and to recommend changes to work practices to reduce any harmful impacts from their working environment.

This research builds on Walker’s earlier work on specific practices that help firefighters cool down faster after facing heat-stress conditions.

His previous research showed that being in cold water for 15 minutes and eating an icy slushy are effective in reducing the core temperature of firefighters following a simulated firefighting task in a very hot environment.

“For years, firefighters have cooled down by drinking a bottle of water and sitting in the shade,” Walker said. “When you have been exposed to temperatures in excess of 100°, while carrying up to 50 kilos of protective gear and equipment, that is not going to cut it.

“We were able to demonstrate that cooling down procedures are just as important as fitness regimes,” he said. “We now need to put all this evidence together to improve recovery practices that will allow firefighters to get back in the job quicker.”

His research, he said, could have applications in other heat-exposed activities such as defence, sport and any other industrial setting where heat is prevalent.

“Firefighters are only one of many professions that see workers constantly exposed to extreme heat. People like miners, farmers and emergency workers working in extreme environmental conditions will also benefit from the findings in this study because its evidence is increasingly pointing to the links between heat-related inflammation and chronic illness and work-related depression.”

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