A fractionation of the physiological burden of the personal protective equipment worn by firefighters
Load carriage increases physiological strain, reduces work capacity and elevates the risk of work-related injury. In this project, the separate and combined physiological consequences of wearing the personal protective equipment used by firefighters were evaluated. The overall impact upon performance was first measured in 20 subjects during a maximal, job-related obstacle course trial and an incremental treadmill test to exhaustion (with and without protective equipment). The fractional contributions of the thermal protective clothing, helmet, breathing apparatus and boots were then separately determined during steady-state walking (4.8 km h−1, 0% gradient) and bench stepping (20 cm at 40 steps min−1). The protective equipment reduced exercise tolerance by 56% on a treadmill, with the ambulatory oxygen consumption reserve (peak minus steady-state walking) being 31% lower. For the obstacle course, performance declined by 27%. Under steady-state conditions, the footwear exerted the greatest relative metabolic impact during walking and bench stepping, being 8.7 and 6.4 times greater per unit mass than the breathing apparatus. Indeed, the relative influence of the clothing on oxygen cost was at least three times that of the breathing apparatus. Therefore, the most efficient way to reduce the physiological burden of firefighters’ protective equipment, and thereby increase safety, would be to reduce the mass of the boots and thermal protective clothing.