Why encapsulating hazmat suits are PPE dinosaurs

Both suit design and testing need a complete overhaul to better match real-world needs

More than 30 years ago, hazardous materials response teams emerged as the new area of specialization within the fire service in the wake of Love Canal and other chemical spill disasters. At the time these teams were forming, PPE offerings were meager.

Many of the products were either military hand-me-downs, designed mainly for chemical warfare agents. Or, they were of a general industrial design with inferior materials.

The Environmental Protection Agency evolved its levels of protection, and OSHA published new regulations aimed at both hazardous waste remediation and emergency response (commonly referred to as "Hazwoper"), setting the stage for a complete hazardous materials industry PPE overhaul.

For fire service hazmat teams, the protective suits were split along the EPA levels with totally encapsulating suits and liquid splash suits. Rubber suits that encapsulated both the wearer and their breathing apparatus were established as the high-end products while conventional rainwear was adapted for splash protection.

Being for the worst case and representing potential unknown exposure conditions then typical for hazmat incidents, much of the industry product development focused on Level A. New test methods had only recently been developed for chemical permeation resistance, which could measure chemical passage through the material on a molecular levels.

Do no harm
This material testing was supplemented with the seemingly sensible inflation tests to demonstrate the "gas-tight" quality of the suits, evaluations that could even be done in the field. The need for broad chemical resistance for all parts of the ensemble — suit, visor, gloves and footwear and their seams — gained acceptance and redefined the ideal product characteristics following a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of face shield cracks in chemical protective suits.

Supplemented by the concept that the product should do no harm, a flame resistance requirement was established. The ensuing products clearly provided an envelope of protection around the end user.

At first, the products that met NFPA 1991 applied two different material strategies. One approach built all of the pertinent performance properties in a single layer. The second combined a flame resistant cover over a chemical layer.

At about the same time, the industry was forced in transitioning from traditional rubber suits to new plastic laminates — many representing new material technologies. Alternatively, a class of relatively light-weight, disposable materials made their entry into the market. All of these products were generally more cumbersome, less flexible, and often more expensive than the products they replaced.

'Duct tape' solution
While a great deal of product development was undertaken to address vapor-protection in totally encapsulating suits, this was not the case for the Level B splash suits addressed by NFPA 1992. The original products were generally of an encapsulated or other encumbering design that first responders did not want.

Also, hazmat teams regarded the risks to be significantly less and considered products meeting the standard as being not as critical for their response capabilities. Those factors combined with a lack of ingenuity on the part of most manufacturers in dealing with suit interfaces (with gloves and respirator facepieces) generally meant relatively little change for industry offerings. The "duct tape" solution seemed to be the most common approach for attaining liquid splash protection.

The problem is that hazardous materials teams generally use liquid-splash protective ensembles the vast majority of the time — some teams estimate that Level B product use comprises 95 percent of their response calls. Hazmat teams make due with existing products by carefully sizing up the incident and training their personnel to avoid contamination. 

On the other hand, vapor-protective suits that are generally certified to NFPA 1991 find dramatically less use but comprise a much greater consumption of industry attention, hazmat team training and department resources. Ask any hazmat responder if given the choice of which ensemble to wear and the answer will be hands down opting for splash suits.

Lacking ingenuity
The continued justification for NFPA 1991 suits remains the worst-case scenarios for a truly serious chemical release or high-risk set of circumstances. So, does this mean that Level A suits are used less for good operational, hazard assessment reasons or do hazmat teams generally try to find reasons for not wearing totally encapsulating suits?

We feel that the chemical-protective clothing industry is stuck in a rut with most of it lacking any kind of ingenuity. The focus appears to be mainly in developing new materials instead of addressing the fundamentals of design and practical protection.

This situation has been created by an overbearing standard, which is predicated on a technology that is now nearly 30 years old. For example, the encapsulating nature of these suits is established because of the logic that the SCBA must be protected from the exposure to chemicals. That might have been true in the 1980s, but now SCBA are rated for warfare agents.

There are also suits designed for much more deadly chemical and biological warfare with the SCBA outside the suit, but with a sophisticated interface.

Test failure
Then there is the convenient inflation test. This test does nothing more than demonstrate that the suit is free from small holes.

Testing involving challenge gases under dynamic use conditions show protection factors for encapsulating suits that are nearly equivalent to the SCBA. Yet, chemical toxicity effects on the skin require much higher concentrations than for inhalation exposures.

Thus, just moving an SCBA to the outside of the suit completely changes the form, fit, and the level of operational function.

The same over design is present in the types of allowable materials. The material chemical testing drives the qualities of the material, not the operational environment.

Consider that materials must hold out detectable levels of chemicals for one hour under 100 percent concentration exposure conditions. This type of exposure simply does not happen — it would be the equivalent of swimming in the chemical. Remember, hazmat responders avoid direct exposures wherever possible.

If one then additionally includes the aspect of flame resistance, other disconnections between real protection needs and delivered performance become apparent. The current criteria for NFPA 1991 suits promotes a level of flame resistance that is more akin to turnout clothing than it is for suits used in environments where monitoring is a mainstay for assessing the risk of flash fire.

Regulation makeover
If the operational parameters have changed and the tests that most influence encapsulating suits are no longer valid for defining levels of chemical protection, then should there not be a complete makeover of NFPA 1991 and the products it defines?

We say yes.

The greatest hazard of an encapsulating suit is the suit itself. Hardly any other type of personal protective equipment used by the fire service is more encumbering than a Level A suit.

Response teams only wear these suits when they have to. And when they do, they are more likely to be affected by heat stress and dangerous decrements of function and mobility than they are likely to be exposed to chemicals.

Certainly chemical protection goals must not be sacrificed, but there can be no question that the current forms of HazMat encapsulating suits should be facing extinction and give rise to a new generation of practical, appropriately-designed high end chemical protective ensembles.

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