PPE certification: Security for hazmat responders

September 30, 2002
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When it comes to relying on protective clothing and equipment to protect your hazardous materials responders, how do you choose quality gear?

Emergency response safety and health professionals are concerned, naturally, with quality. Employee safety is given their highest priority. But how can quality be screened?

First, conduct a hazard/risk assessment to determine your personal protective equipment needs. Next, seek out PPE manufacturers with excellent reputations. Then, confirm that the PPE has been independently certified by an accredited certification organization such as the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) or Underwriters Laboratories (UL). The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Standards Council of Canada (SCC) operate programs to accredit product certifiers.

A list of certified products can be found at UL's Web site (www.ul.com) or SEI's Web site (www.seinet.org) .

For hazardous materials protective clothing, three standards are used as the basis for certifying the quality of protective clothing and ensembles:

  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1991 Standard on Vapor-Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies (2000 edition)
  • NFPA 1992 Standard on Liquid Splash-Protective Ensembles and Clothing for Hazardous Materials Emergencies (2000 edition)
  • NFPA 1994 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Chemical/Biological Terrorism Incidents (2001 edition)

NFPA 1991 and 1992 were written in the late 1980s in response to the growing number of hazardous material responders who were using chemical protective clothing from a variety of sources without consistent protection. In 1985, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that government agencies support the development of protective standards for chemical protection after several first responders were exposed to a hazardous chemical from a leaking railcar, even though the manufacturer recommended the use of their suits for the chemical involved.

As a result, NFPA 1991 and NFPA 1992 were prepared and generally correspond to the Environmental Protection Agency's Level A and B configurations that are common in the hazardous chemical response and remediation industries. The following table shows how the two standards were positioned to provide performance-based, instead of configuration-based definitions of chemical protective clothing provided by the EPA.

Widely adopted internationally, many government agencies, fire departments and corporations reference these NFPA standards in their purchasing specifications.

NFPA standards development

The Technical Committee (TC) on Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing and Equipment of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has worked diligently under the chairmanship of Bryan Heirston, Safety - Battalion Chief, Oklahoma City Fire Department, to develop standards offering performance criteria for emergency chemical protective ensembles and clothing. During the standards development process, the NFPA accepts proposals and comments from the public for the TC to review and, when feasible, incorporate into the performance standards.

The TC volunteer members include a broad range of interests including representation from fire and emergency response personnel, protective clothing (boots, gloves and suits) manufacturers, testing labs, certification organizations and government and military experts. No single interest dominates the standards development process.

The NFPA HazMat Clothing TC has developed information to help users of Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies understand the NFPA performance standards.

NFPA 1991

NFPA 1991 defines an ensemble (similar to EPA's Level A suit) consisting of a suit with attached gloves that totally encapsulates the wearer and his or her breathing apparatus, that may also be worn with an overcover, outer gloves, and outer boots to meet the requirements of the standard. Some products can achieve these requirements without these extra layers. Ensembles must be provided in a minimum of four sizes and must have protective inverted pockets over exhaust valves. Gloves and footwear are subject to minimum length and height requirements, respectively. Performance requirements include:

  • Inflation of ensembles to determine integrity against gas penetration and shower testing for demonstrating integrity of clothing against liquid penetration.
  • Permeation testing of suit, visor, glove, and footwear materials and seams against a 21-chemical battery to demonstrate resistance against a broad range of industrial chemicals; the chemical battery contains gases and liquids representing difference classes of chemicals.
  • Burst strength, puncture resistance, cold temperature performance, abrasion resistance, and flex fatigue testing of suit, glove, and footwear materials.
  • Breaking strength testing for seams and closures.
  • Leakage and mounting strength testing of exhaust valves.
  • Tests for evaluating the functional use of the ensemble and dexterity of gloves.

NFPA 1991 also includes optional criteria for liquefied gas protection, flash fire escape protection, and chemical/biological terrorism agent protection (now addressed in NFPA 1994). Additional criteria are provided for each of the certification options. Product labels must clearly indicate which options apply to the specific ensemble. The primary purpose of NFPA 1991 is to define requirements that isolate the wearer from a surrounding hazardous chemical environment.

NFPA 1992

NFPA 1992 addresses the second tier of hazardous materials response protection. This standard establishes requirements for chemical liquid splash protection where no chemical vapor hazards exist during a hazardous material response. The liquid-splash protective ensembles (similar to EPA Level B suits) are intended for situations where the primarily form of chemical exposure is in the form of short-term, intermittent contact with liquid chemicals that do not provide skin-toxic or carcinogenic vapors. NFPA 1992 further permits the individual certification of garments, gloves, and footwear, which may not be part of an overall ensemble.

NFPA 1992 contains few design requirements and performance characteristics are similar to those specified in NFPA 1991 with the following differences:

  • NFPA 1992 garments, gloves, and footwear are only tested for liquid integrity and may not offer integrity against gases.
  • Penetration testing is used instead of permeation testing.
  • A smaller chemical battery is used for chemical resistance testing; gases, or liquid chemicals with known skin-toxicity or carcinogenic properties are not included.
  • Exhaust valves are neither required nor evaluated.
  • Physical strength and hazard resistance performance criteria are lower for NFPA 1992 items.
  • Only one option is provided - for flash fire protection.

The primary purpose of NFPA 1992 is to establish requirements for clothing that keeps liquids from contacting the wearer's skin.

NFPA 1994

NFPA 1994 is a new standard released in August 2001 that sets performance requirements for protective clothing used at chemical and biological terrorism incidents. It defines three classes of ensembles based on the perceived threat at the emergency scene. Differences are based on:

  • The ability of the ensemble design to resist the inward leakage of chemical and biological contaminants.
  • The resistance of the materials used in the construction of the ensembles to chemical agents and industrial chemicals.
  • The strength and durability of these materials.

All NFPA 1994 ensembles are intended for a single exposure use. Ensembles must consist of garments, gloves, and footwear. The table below summarizes the use of these ensembles:

Class 1 Ensembles - Class 1 ensembles offer the highest level of protection. Ensembles are required to:

  • Provide integrity to gases by passing an inflation test (with the exhaust valves plugged).
  • Show very low levels (less than 0.02 percent) for penetration of surrogate gas during an inward leakage test involving a human test subject.
  • Use materials (garment, visor, glove, footwear, and seams) that provide the highest level of permeation resistance against chemical agents as well as toxic industrial chemical liquids and gases.
  • Use garment, glove, and footwear materials that possess relatively high levels of physical hazard resistance (to abrasion, tearing, punctures, and cuts).

Class 1 ensembles are intended for the worst case circumstances, where the substance involved creates an immediate threat, is unidentified and of unknown concentration. Such situations would occur where there is still an on-going release with likely gas/vapor exposure, the responder is close to the point of release, and most victims in the area appear to be unconscious or dead from exposure. Stay times in the hazard zone are likely to be very short and limited to the breathing air available from the SCBA.

Class 2 Ensembles - Class 2 ensembles offer an intermediate level of protection. These ensembles have the following characteristics:

  • The ensembles must show no more than 2.0 percent leakage of the outside environment into the ensemble as demonstrated by the same surrogate gas test described for Class 1 above.
  • The ensemble must also pass a "shower" test that shows that the suit will not allow any penetration of liquid when sprayed from several directions.
  • Materials used in the Class 2 ensembles, gloves, and footwear must demonstrate permeation resistance to chemical warfare agents and liquid/gaseous toxic industrial chemicals. However lower concentrations of these chemicals are used in testing as compared to Class 1 (for examples gases are tested at a concentration of 0.1 percent in air).
  • Class 2 garment, glove, and footwear materials must still be rugged but at lower physical property levels as compared to Class 1 ensemble.

Class 2 ensembles are intended for circumstances where the agent or threat may be identified, when the actual release has subsided, or in an area where live victims may be rescued. Conditions of exposure include possible contact with residual vapor or gas and highly contaminated surfaces at the emergency scene. Most victims in the response area are alive and show signs of movement, but are non-ambulatory. For Class 2 ensembles, breathing air from the SCBA may still limit wearing time. However, Class 2 ensembles may also be configured with powered air-purifying respirators that provide longer duration response time.

Class 3 Ensembles - Class 3 ensembles offer the lowest level of protection. These ensembles have the following characteristics:

  • The ensembles are not required to show any resistance to leakage of vapor or gas from the outside environment. But the suits must be resistant to inward liquid penetration as demonstrated by passing a short-duration "shower" test.
  • Class 3 ensemble materials are not tested against gases, but still must provide permeation resistance to low concentrations of liquid chemical warfare agents and liquid toxic industrial chemicals where the liquid is permitted to evaporate during the test.

Class 3 ensembles are intended for use long after the release has occurred, at relative large distances from the point of release, or in the peripheral zone of the release scene for such functions as decontamination, patient care, crowd control, perimeter control, traffic control and clean-up. Class 3 ensembles should only be used when there is very little potential for vapor or gas exposure, exposure to liquids is expected to be incidental through contact with contaminated surfaces, and when dealing with patients or self-evacuating victims. Class 3 ensembles must cover the individual and it is preferred that this clothing also cover the wearer's respirator to limit its potential for contamination. Because these ensembles are intended for longer wearing periods, the use of air-purifying respirators with these suits is likely.

Certification

Because of the critical performance characteristics of safety and protective equipment, and the hazardous work environments where the products are used, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Correlating Committee (TCC) stipulates that all standards under its protective clothing and equipment project include requirements for third-party certification. In order for a manufacturer to comply with an NFPA protective clothing and equipment standard, their product must be certified by a third-party. That third-party certification organization must comply with the requirements of the NFPA standards and be accredited to ISO 65, General Requirements for Bodies Operating Third-Party Certification Systems. Both ANSI - www.ANSI.org and the SCC - www.SCC.ca have a listing of third-party certification bodies.

Future directions

The NFPA TC on Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing and Equipment is working on a companion document for the selection, care and maintenance of chemical protective clothing. The NFPA TC has prepared a draft document, NFPA 1853, which will soon be available for review and public comment by the public.

Additionally, the NFPA TC is already working on a revision to NFPA 1994. When the TC begins the process to develop a new standard or revises an existing standard, there are two key opportunities available to the public to provide input on the content of the standard - Public Proposals and Public Comments.

All Public Proposals for requirements to be included in NFPA 1994 that are submitted to the NFPA by the end of 2002 will be acted on by the TC at their Report on Proposals (ROP) meeting in 2003. Next, the NFPA will publish the ROP for public review to solicit comments. The ROP includes proposals received by NFPA, and the actions taken by the TC.

The TC will then meet to act on each comment received on the ROP. The result is the development of a Report on Comments (ROC). The ROC contains all the comments received on the proposals in the ROP, as well as all actions taken by the TC on the comments. This revision cycle includes approval of the ROC by the NFPA TCC, a vote by the NFPA membership and final approval by the NFPA Standards Council that reviews the entire record of the revision.

In order to incorporate new technologies and address the needs of users, the TC meets regularly to work on refining these standards. Since the NFPA standards development is an open process, guests are always welcome at these meetings. To participate in the process, interested parties may go to the NFPA Web site, www.NFPA.org and click on the button that says Codes and Standards. A Proposals and Comments link takes you to a list of standards. By clicking on the appropriate standard number, you can go to the page designated for that standard, where you will learn the status of that standard. In the case of the revision to NFPA 1994, the NFPA allows for a free download of the current version of the standard.

By readily reviewing the standard or draft standard on the NFPA web site, a person is better informed and can then submit a proposal or comment on a requirement directly to NFPA on-line. Individuals who wish to become members of the TC may apply directly to the Standards Administration at NFPA. Either way, it is important to participate in the standards development/revision process.

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