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Control measure
Recognise signs and symptoms of exposure to hazardous materials

Control measure knowledge

Symptoms of exposure to hazardous materials can provide important information to responders regarding the type and level of hazard. Symptoms will also provide responders with key information to determine the priorities in dealing with those who have potentially been exposed. Exposure to chemical hazardous materials will usually lead to the onset of symptoms much quicker than from exposure to biological or radiological materials. At an unknown event, this can often be used as an indicator of the type of hazardous material involved.

Important information can be gained from the type of symptoms that are displayed, the number of people exposed and the time from exposure to symptoms becoming apparent.

Four routes of exposure can lead to symptoms developing:

  • Ingestion
  • Contact with skin or eyes
  • Inhalation
  • Injection or through cuts

The route through which exposure occurs can also be a significant factor on the speed and type of symptoms displayed. For example, exposure through a cut may mean that some hazardous substances get absorbed into the blood stream more quickly, enabling symptoms to develop rapidly.

Symptoms from hazardous materials will be either acute or chronic:

  • Acute: Substances whose effects develop quickly (usually within minutes to days) and worsen with increasing levels of exposure. These hazardous materials also have a level or 'threshold' below which no harm is caused, although for example, in cases of highly toxic substance, this level can be very low.
  • Chronic: Substances whose effects develop after significant periods of time and usually following repeated exposure, for example, substances that can cause cancer.

Strategic actions

Fire and rescue services should:
  • Ensure their policies and procedures include the need to save life, even at CBRN(E) incidents
  • Have robust occupational health/post incident screening for personnel. See Hazard - Unsafe closure of the incident Control measure - Provide a health monitoring system for all personnel'

Tactical actions

Incident commanders should:
  • Observe individuals for signs of exposure to hazardous materials, for example skin reddening, itching and burning of eyes or skin may indicate exposure to a corrosive substance
  • Liaise with paramedics and other health professionals
  • Initiate screening procedure for personnel following a potential exposure
  • Consider vulnerable groups where the effects of exposure may be more immediate, severe or prolonged
  • Ensure symptoms are consistent with hazard identification