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New, more comfortable hazmat PPE coming

A move away from strict barrier protection testing is allowing PPE makers to build products better suited for hazmat response


Photo/City of Portland

Personal protective equipment for hazardous materials response may seem like one of those areas where the technology has evolved to maturity. After all, over the past three decades we have seen a transformation of rubber-based hand-me-down suits from the military to a new wide range of lightweight plastic-based products and other innovations that seemingly make protection during chemical incidents easier and safer.

Yet, there are significant challenges arising for the hazmat PPE world. What has been conventionally divided between Level A total-encapsulating suits and Level B splash-protective clothing as defined by the EPA and OSHA is no longer deemed the right hierarchy of performance.

Moreover, with improvements in how firefighters engage in hazardous materials responses along with new tools, the demands for traditional PPE are changing. So are the standards that regulate hazmat PPE.

In the past, first responders often had to assume worst-case conditions because of the unknown circumstances for the release of various chemicals unless the incident involved obvious telltale clues. Certainly, hazmat response has been predicated on a careful upfront assessment for individuals are put into potentially hazardous environments.

Nevertheless, thanks to widespread training, the use of smaller, more capable monitoring devices and a variety of PPE to choose from, hazmat teams have a more sophisticated approach in identifying and mitigating hazardous materials incidents. Rarely, does he hazmat team enter an unknown situation.

Due in part to OSHA regulations, nearly all firefighters receive some form of hazardous materials response training. This training teaches firefighters to properly identify scene hazards and take appropriate initial steps for sizing up an incident.

More advanced training for technician and operational levels further provides a good foundation for instructing first responders how to remain safe and properly mitigate particular incidents. Less expensive but comprehensive monitors combined with a variety of online and otherwise available assessment tools further the level of information available to hazmat responders.

Thanks to overly robust standards for PPE, different clothing options have evolved to those including a range of high-end materials and components that are amply capable of providing exceptional barrier protection.

Legacies dictate design

Many products are certified to the different standards that include NFPA 1991 for vapor protective ensembles, which was intended to replace the Level A vernacular. Many meet NFPA 1992 requirements for the lesser protective liquid splash protective ensembles, the equivalent of Level B splash suits.

While there are seemingly more high-end materials available, conventional suit designs have remained static. Level A suits remain body bags with arms and legs. And many splash suits, especially those not certified to NFPA standards, have dubious liquid protection capabilities.

With their increased sophistication, hazmat personnel want greater mobility, and there is a greater need for tactical-like operations in several types of responses. The problem is that the primary focus for hazmat PPE has been on materials science and their performance against various hazardous chemicals.

The industry transitioned from rubber-based elastomeric materials with known multiple limitations in providing protection against specific chemical classes to exceptionally thick and expensive specialized Teflon laminates to finally relatively thin plastic film composites.

The latter materials show a high degree of permeation resistance against a wide range of chemicals and, in many cases, hold out these chemicals for eight hours or more. While this may be seen as a significant benefit to first responders, the overemphasis on material technology has been at the expense of product design.

Part of this problem is due to overly rigorous material chemical resistance testing that has eliminated options for more flexible and comfortable materials.

An alternative approach

Hazardous materials first responder simply felt that being uncomfortable and restricted was part of the job as the industry maintained its position for fabrics highly resistant to plastic-based chemicals. However, after 9/11 there came a range of clothing dedicated to chemical and biological terrorism response – commonly called CBRN PPE.

Many of these suits are different. This is because the materials are used for a broader range of first responders other than the highly trained hazmat teams. These first responders need clothing that is easier to don and wear.

CBRN responders were provided products that, while having less chemical resistance, were more functional. This approach acknowledged the expected circumstances of diminished chemical or biological threats that exist following the terrorism incident, such as contaminated victims and environments rather than ongoing releases.

Thus, the differences in clothing choices became more manifest. Many can remember how different response teams outfitted their members to white powder calls in everything ranging from encapsulating suits to relatively deficient disposable clothing.

A new standard emerged in the form of NFPA 1994 that positioned products for the broader first responder population but also accounted for more realistic material performance levels. This led to more flexible and formfitting clothing designs.

Interestingly, the departments that used both the conventional NFPA 1991 and NFPA 1992 for hazmat and NFPA 1994 clothing for CBRN found that they generally preferred CBRN clothing. Responders found they could more easily perform tasks and be more comfortable than they could in the old Level A and Level B outfits.

The future

The trend toward better fitted clothing has influenced key standards. NFPA 1991, which remains the standard for totally encapsulating suits, has continued its past trend with only minor modifications.

NFPA 1992 has been somewhat repositioned to allow for more practical designs that ensure appropriate levels of liquid protection as originally intended including evaluation of materials against chemicals that are now operationally relevant.

However, the largest change came from the revision of NFPA 1994.

The scope of that standard has been broadened to include not only CBRN terrorism response and all types of hazardous materials response, but an entirely new hierarchy of PPE has been defined. The standard also has been revised to include an alternative type of ensemble compared to the classical Level A ensemble.

The new clothing, known as a Class 1 ensemble, uses realistic levels of chemical resistance and define appropriate levels of overall clothing integrity and other protective qualities. These criteria advance more functional related products to allow hazmat first responders to safely deal with hazardous materials incidents more comfortably.

Other classes have been introduced to address options for rugged environment use and protection from accidental flash fire. A new revised NFPA 1994 is due to issue in May. Already there is activity in the marketplace to adjust clothing outfits for meeting these new needs.

The hope is that a transformation will take place in hazmat PPE as it has been driven in other areas to promote clothing systems that provide appropriate levels of protection without compromising needed function and sustained wearing capabilities.

The process is gradual, but every once one in a while it works.

Get all the facts about Personal Protective Equipment. Foremost PPE expert Jeffrey Stull writes ‘PPE Update,’ a FireRescue1 column that covers personal protective equipment options, fit, selection and all the regulations for its care and maintenance.