A cleaner future for PPE

A cleaner future for PPE

In recent years, the issue of cleaning and maintaining firefighter PPE has moved firmly into the spotlight, with the emergence of a possible link between contaminated kit and long-term health. Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, looks at the importance of keeping PPE clean, and the implications for fire crews across the globe.

Currently, the provision of cleaning and maintenance services for firefighter PPE varies greatly around the world. Whilst cleaning is a high priority in the USA and parts of Europe, where the majority of Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) will expect a managed services provision as part of their PPE contract, in many other areas of the world there is much less emphasis on professional cleaning.

Some countries tend to replace damaged or heavily soiled garments in favour of cleaning or repair, whereas in other regions, professional cleaning provision simply isn’t available, and firefighters either have their kit cleaned at the station, or are expected to use their washing machine at home.

Following recent research indicating a possible link between carcinogens found in smoke particles and higher rates of cancer among firefighters, the importance of regular, effective cleaning is becoming ever more apparent. The professional cleaning of PPE following a fire-related incident, along with other practices such as swift removal of contaminated garments, has been highlighted as a practical means of reducing the risk of carcinogens entering the body. As a result, many FRSs around the world are looking to establish more formal procedures for the cleaning of their kit.


The standards-setting body National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) which covers the USA, Latin America and the Asia/Pacific region, is currently the only standard in the world setting criteria for the regular cleaning of kit. NFPA1851: 2014 establishes requirements for the selection, care, and maintenance of firefighting protective ensembles to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination, or damage.

The UK in particular, is keen to create a similar standard to help protect firefighters against these health concerns, but despite the existence of European guidance on how frequently PPE should be cleaned, Europe still rejects calls for a standard that sets firm criteria for the cleaning, maintenance, and repair of firefighters’ PPE. As a result, the British Standards Institute (BSI) is working to develop a national standard to meet this demand.

Managed services

Whilst research into health concerns and the development of standards is ongoing, at Bristol Uniforms we continue to take cleaning and repair very seriously. We offer an in-house Managed Services option to FRSs in the UK, and where possible, work with our international distributors to establish relationships with reputable cleaning contractors in order to offer professional cleaning to our customers around the world.

An increase in demand for cleaning and maintenance in the UK has led to the expansion of our Managed Services operations out of London and Bristol. We employ our own delivery drivers to collect soiled or damaged kit from FRSs around the country in a fleet of liveried vans. The garments are then transported to one of our two in-house Service Centres for thorough cleaning, inspection and repair, and are returned to the customer within seven days.

Unique bar codes on each item provide Bristol with a thorough record of its life-journey from the date of manufacture, the specific rolls of fabric that were used to create it, and each wash and repair. The Service Centres are also equipped to treat contaminated PPE, which have been exposed to toxic or hazardous materials and need to be cleaned in a specially controlled environment.

More and more we’re finding that FRSs across the UK are appointing us on long term contracts to handle the cleaning and repair of their PPE, and this provision continues to be a growing part of our UK business.

In other countries, we work closely with distributors and partners to offer a similar high quality service to our customers. Total Safety manages all our garment care and maintenance in Spain and has worked with us for more than 20 years. It was the first service of its kind to be established in the country and covers all of Spain including Balearic and the Canary Islands.

Eric Griso Managing Director of Total Safety comments:

“Since we launched our business in 1995, extensive studies have been carried out across the USA, Scandinavia and many other countries, linking cancer to the firefighting profession, and suggesting that toxic substances can enter the body through inhalation and skin absorption. It is becoming more and more apparent that all firefighting PPE should be professionally decontaminated following a fire-related incident, including helmets, boots and gloves.

“At Total Safety, we collect soiled garments from our customers and return them clean and repaired within 72 hours. Although only 40% of fire services in Spain opt for a specialised care and maintenance package, the service is becoming ever more popular, as it offers reassurance that the health of their crew is being prioritised.”

Looking to the future

Now that the wider health implications of smoke contamination are coming to light, the gold standard response would be for all fire services across the world to adopt professional cleaning and maintenance processes. However, it will of course take time and investment before a professional cleaning infrastructure can be established in many areas of the world.

In the meantime, now that we have greater understanding of the cause of the problem, there are practical measures all firefighters can take on board to minimise their risk. These include removing PPE promptly after an incident, showering as soon as possible, keeping dirty PPE separated from clean PPE at the station, and washing PPE regularly.

At the same time, the industry needs to continue to work together to share best practice, so that we can quickly and significantly improve the long-term health of the world’s firefighters. At Bristol Uniforms, we have many years’ experience providing high quality care and maintenance packages for many of our customers and are happy to share our knowledge and offer advice with international fire and rescue services who may be interested in establishing more formal Managed Services arrangements. Bristol Unifroms has a dedicated PPE Helpline: ppehelpline@bristoluniforms.com.