A Facemask Breach can be devastating
By Military Sealift Command Public Affairs
The U.S. Navy’s damage control doctrine has been written in blood. One catastrophic event which impacted the Navy’s stance on being able to breathe in a damage control situation was a fire aboard the USS Forrestal (CV 59) during the Vietnam War which killed 134 Sailors while injuring 161 more.
“There was an accidental missile launch on the aircraft carrier deck which set off the chain reaction of fires and explosions,” said Bob Farmer, Director, Military Sealift Command Training Center East. “The main fire party (Damage Control Team 8) led by Chief Gerald Farrier rushed in without protective clothing to rescue aviators still in their aircraft to escape, and some did; including the future Senator John McCain. Just a little over a minute and half after the fire started, a bomb exploded killing the Chief and killing or injuring the rest of the team. With the team specifically trained for dealing with this type of event killed or injured, other Sailors had to step in and be part of the firefighting effort. Many of those remaining Sailors were not trained in shipboard damage control. This proved costly as many critical mistakes were made by these Sailors who were trying to save the Forrestal.”
Military Sealift Command’s shipboard Civil Service Mariners work in dynamic and at times hazardous environments. Functioning in these hazardous conditions requires the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for fighting fires or respirators to perform work tasks which could expose CIVMARS to toxins. Failure to maintain a proper seal around the facemask while using one of these devises can be devastating.
“Due to the nature of MSC’s mission, civil service mariners must be able to respond rapidly to shipboard emergencies and other exigencies, in times of peace and war,” said Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne, commander, Military Sealift Command. “Our crews must maintain their personal grooming and wear apparel in a manner that permits proper donning and use of emergency, safety, and military-specific equipment with little or no advance warning.”
“All civil service mariners must be ready at all times to properly use a self-contained breathing apparatus, emergency escape breathing device, gas masks, lifesaving and survival equipment, and other similar required devices and garments,” Mewbourne added. “Any hair growth between the skin and sealing surfaces, such as stubble beard growth, beard, or mustache or sideburns which cross sealing surfaces, are prohibited. Additionally, mariners cannot be attired in clothing or jewelry (including religious articles or devices) that interferes with proper donning and operation of this required equipment.”
As standard operating procedure, CIVMARS aboard MSC vessels are required to wear an SCBA while fighting fires aboard ships.
“An SCBA is a type of respiratory protection equipment that contains breathable compressed air. It is typically used by firefighters and rescue workers while operating in areas of immediate danger to life and health,” said Farmer. “Over the years, many mariners have argued that they can maintain a facemask seal with a beard and questioned the need to fit test for a positive-pressure breathing apparatus, which a SCBA is. The regulations contained in 29 CFR 1910 clearly states that we cannot permit respirators with tight-fitting face-pieces to be worn by employees who have facial hair that comes between the sealing surface.”
“Our SCBAs use positive pressure, so although toxins have difficulty entering the facemask, air can escape and, depending on the amount of facial hair and the quality of the seal; a lot of air could escape reducing the time the wearer would have to fight the fire,” said Farmer. “The hose team is only as good as its weakest link. We train to rotate fire teams as a group, so if one team member runs low on air, the entire team would have to rotate out; even possibly before the planned rotation. This could allow the fire to continue to burn, and spread.”
Another area of concern regarding facial hair or interfering apparel is that CIVMARS are required to use respirators when performing a variety of hazardous tasks.
“Military Sealift Command’s CIVMARS are required by Safety Management System procedures to be medically certified to don and use a respirator and fit tested within the past year for using the intended respirator,” said Joe McMullen, Military Sealift Command’s Senior Safety Manager. “Our CIVMARS are required to properly use a respirator to perform a variety of tasks that expose them to contaminants that may be dangerous if inhaled, such as aerosols (mist, dust, fumes) or gases (fumes and vapors), and when working with toxic chemicals.”
The Safety Management System prohibits mariners from having facial hair that may interfere with the respirator’s effectiveness at sealing against the face, including SCBAs and respirators. “If someone is working in a toxic environment with an improper facemask seal, they are at risk of inhaling in harmful airborne particles and poisons,” added McMullen. “Properly fitted and donned respirators can protect our CIVMARS from devastating health complications such as upper respiratory issues, brain damage, cancer and even death.”
According to the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety Hazard Administration website, “An employer shall not permit respirators with tight-fitting face-pieces to be worn by employees who have facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the face-piece and the face or that interferes with valve function; or any condition that interferes with the face-to-face-piece seal or valve function.”
For more information concerning the proper wear of SCBAs, or respirators please consult the Safety Management System articles 2.1-015-220.127.116.11, 2.1-015-18.104.22.168, 2.1-015-22.214.171.124 and the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety Hazard Administration article 1910.134.
If you have questions, please ask your chain of command, resident damage control expert or safety representative.