Firefighter Burnout and Workplace Safety

The US Fire Administration (USFA) has published a report on how burnout impacted a firefighter’s ability to follow required safe work practices, care for and safely use personal protective equipment (PPE), and communicate and report safety concerns.

Burnout is generally defined as a psychological response to chronic work stress and is recognized as having three major components:

  1. Exhaustion;
  2. Disengagement or withdrawal from the workplace and co-workers; and
  3. Cynicism or unsympathetic attitude towards the people and goals they serve.

Study results clearly showed that burnout leads to diminished safety behaviors in firefighters. It should be considered a legitimate safety concern within the fire service.

Work stress and work-family conflict are not directly linked to bad safety practices. They can, however, lead to burnout over time, which is the major predictor of unsafe work practices.

When firefighters are burned out, they are less likely to voice their safety concerns, to use PPE properly, and to perform their work in a routinely safe manner.

The research team had these recommendations for fire department leaders to prevent burnout and promote safe behaviors:

  • Place an emphasis on a safety-conscious transformational style of leadership. This will counter many of the stressors that lead to burnout. This style of leadership also promotes fairness and equity and it builds engagement;
  • Require supervisors to provide rest and rehabilitation during firefighting operations, and allow for post-event rest and recovery; and
  • Promote health and wellness goals and a positive safety climate. This will help to counter the effects of stressors that may lead to burnout.