RWTH Researchers Want to Improve Protection for Female Firefighters

Four people smiling at the camera, three people holding up certificates © Mike Auerbach

The Helping Hand Prize goes to the Aachen-based researchers. Johann Saathoff, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior (left), awarded the prize to Carsten Schiffer, Rahel Heesemann, and Justin Kühn (from left).


Doesn't fit? You will make do. But it is not always so simple. In a joint project, researchers from the RWTH Institute of Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics (IAW) and Lehrstuhl für Textilmaschinenbau und Lehrstuhl für Textilmaschinenbau (ITA) have discovered that the sometimes poorer fitting protective clothing leads to an increased risk of accidents among female firefighters compared to their male colleagues. For their findings, Carsten Schiffer (IAW), Rahel Heesemann (coordinator of the Personal Protective Equipment Working Group at ITA), and Justin Kühn (ITA) have now been awarded the Helping Hand Prize in Berlin by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community. This is the highest award for voluntary civil protection in Germany.

The three Aachen-based researchers won over the jury, coming first in the Innovative Concepts category and thereby beating four other projects on Monday evening. They were delighted, "we knew that we were in the top 5 beforehand, but it was a lovely surprise to come first," says Carsten Schiffer, a research associate at the Institute of Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics at RWTH. For his bachelor's thesis at ITA – which was supervised by Heesemann and Kühn – he asked over 1,700 firefighters how satisfied they were with their clothing, how safe they felt in service, and how well the clothing fitted them. His findings: female firefighters are significantly worse off than their male counterparts.

Later, for his master's thesis at the IAW, Schiffer, who completed an internship in the administration of Cologne Fire Department to better understand the subject matter, then took a very close look at accident data and reports from the volunteer fire departments: "Here I was able to show that female firefighters not only feel less safe, they actually have more accidents." And the severity of the accidents is also different. While male firefighters, for example, mainly suffer classic interception injuries to their hands and knees in falls, women are much more likely to injure their head or hip. The researchers see the connection to poorly fitting protective clothing as highly probable. They are now seeking to substantiate this theory with further research, for which the two RWTH chairs have submitted a joint research proposal. This is because the topic "is very relevant to society and can also be transferred to other aid organizations," explains Justin Kühn, who, in addition to his work as a research assistant at ITA, is also involved in the Aachen Volunteer Fire Department.

"Women and men can experience different levels of physical and psychosocial stress in the workplace. It's important to address these differences and implement appropriate measures to protect everyone equally," says Professor Verena Nitsch, Head of the Institute of Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics. The different requirements of the genders often are still not adequately taken into account when it comes to occupational health and safety. "Unfortunately, not enough employers are addressing this issue, especially in traditionally male-dominated professions. We are very proud of the award and hope that it will help to raise awareness of the importance of creating equal occupational health and safety conditions," Professor Nitsch continued.