Older firefighters may become resilient to working in the heat

Posted on Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Older firefighters who are chronically exposed to heat stress on the job may become heat resilient over time. A recent study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH), found that older firefighters may be able to tolerate more challenging or arduous work environments before they feel affected by the heat, compared to non-heat exposed workers, who would need to stop work prematurely.

“We found that the firefighters experienced reduced subjective feelings of thermal and cardiovascular strain during exercise compared to the non-firefighters, potentially indicative of greater heat resilience in firefighters due to the nature of their occupation,” said study investigator Glen P. Kenny, PhD, a professor at the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa.

The researchers examined a group of older, physically active non-firefighters and firefighters, approximately 51 years old, during intermittent exercise in two heat stress conditions to investigate the potential thermal, cardiovascular and hydration effects of repeated exposure to occupational heat stress.

While Kenny and his colleagues found no differences in the level of thermal and cardiovascular strain experienced by older heat-exposed firefighters and non-heat-exposed older workers, the non-heat-exposed workers felt more heat stressed, and felt the work performed was physically more challenging, than did the firefighters.

“If you have older workers who work in the heat, they are in a better position to handle working in the heat as compared to their non-heat-exposed counterparts,” said Professor Kenny. “If they can better handle the heat stress, they can better perform challenging tasks without putting themselves at greater risk of injuries caused by impairments in mental function, alertness, concentration, motor dexterity, and coordination.”

Prior to this study, physiological strain had been examined in young and middle-aged firefighters during live firefighting and simulated drills, but the responses of older, more experienced firefighters had not been investigated.

“Our discovery is especially important, given recent findings that aging can decrease an individual's ability to dissipate heat and, therefore, work in hot environments,” added Kenny.

Read the full study, which was funded by a research grant provided by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (Ontario).

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