Protective clothing

July 1, 2005
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One of my signature keynote stories involves a favorite television program of mine from the ’70s and ’80s, Fantasy Island. Predictably, near the beginning of each episode, viewers find the two co-stars on the beach, discussing the imminent arrival of each new guest to paradise, and their particular fantasy.

Suddenly, Tattoo looks skyward and excitedly says, “Look boss — the plane — the plane!” But, as I say to my audience, “in reality, Tattoo was misunderstood by Mr. Roarke, you, and me. Tattoo was actually saying ‘the plan — the plan!’ That’s why they messed up everyone’s fantasy. It wasn’t a lesson in contentment. They simply couldn’t find the plan!”

As with many of your safety efforts, you, too, need a plan to achieve long-term success. And with the ongoing evolution of protective clothing — materials and designs and standards — it’s no different. I want to share three basic components to help you successfully plan out your protective clothing efforts to best protect your workers.

1) Know where you stand

Know the hazards in your work environment. It’s critical in order to protect your workers with appropriate clothing. You must conduct a good hazard assessment and document how you will protect your workers — this includes PPE, and in particular, protective clothing. We’re all keenly aware of PPE for the head, eyes and face, hands, all the way down to the feet — but what about protective clothing? Protective clothing can include hoods, shirts, pants, gowns and full-body wear.

The voluntary 2000 edition of standard NFPA 70E for protection of shock and arc hazards for electrical workers has been widely adopted by general industry, even without formal adoption (yet) by OSHA. OSHA’s existing electrical standard (1910.302-308) is based on the 1979 edition of NFPA 70E, a national consensus standard developed by industry, labor, and other allied interests. OSHA believes the 2000 edition of NFPA 70E should be the foundation of a revised standard because it provides nationally recognized safe electrical installation requirements. OSHA intends to complete this project in several stages. The first stage will cover design safety standards for electrical systems, while the second stage will cover safety-related maintenance and work practice requirements and safety requirements for special equipment.

Final action on updating OSHA’s rules is expected by September 2005, according to the most recent regulatory calendar.

You should keep abreast of a host of voluntary standards that are continually being developed and updated by groups like the National Fire Protection Association, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials), the American National Standards Institute, and various international organizations.

Protective clothing standards, like those found within the NFPA’s 1990s standards and the ASTM F23 committee, help establish minimum design and performance requirements for biological hazards, radiological hazards, thermal hazards, and chemical and human factors considerations. A number of these may be relevant to your industry and can help you to establish your own internal standards.

2) Buy-in is a must

No matter what industry you work within, getting buy-in from your end-users is critical. Your workers need to be involved in your hazard assessment process and help you to more fully recognize the level of protection required for the risks involved.

Key factors that must become part of the involvement and buy-in process include the level of protection offered by the protective clothing, comfort, and appearance.

It’s also important not to over-protect workers to the point that they lose comfort and functional movement, which can cause fatigue and lead to mistakes. Even more, over-protection might cause distractions that cause injuries due to comfort and mobility issues or thermal response dynamics that cause the wearers’ body temperatures to rise.

Without consistent testing protocol for all clothing types, you need to protect adequately but also give choices. New materials that focus on protection, comfort, look, and feel keep evolving from the textile sciences and will make your job easier. Carbon fiber materials are one example — they’re soft, light, and comfortable, affording protection against heat, flames, and various chemical hazards. But again, get as many of your workers involved in the selection and testing process as possible — achieving buy-in early often greatly helps to obtain more worker compliance later on.

And remember, many well-qualified vendors are knowledgeable and ready to help with clothing selection and training support.

3) Follow-up and follow-through

You need to evaluate the status of your protective clothing programs and related improvements on three different levels:

  • Obviously, evaluating the everyday use of protective clothing is very important. Any protective clothing effort requires observing workers in their environments to ensure not only proper utilization and wear but functional use to make sure the clothing works appropriately for them. Plus, informal interviews and upward feedback from workers regarding comfort and function is an important way to improve protection.

  • You’ll also need to monitor the revision of standards like those developed by the NFPA and ASTM and whether OSHA adopts or cites various protective clothing standards. In a 2003 letter of interpretation, OSHA wrote: “Industry consensus standards, such as NFPA 70E, can be used by employers as guides to making the assessments and equipment selections required by the standard. Similarly, in OSHA enforcement actions, they can be used as evidence of whether the employer acted reasonably.”

  • Finally, the research and development of better materials that offer more protection, more comfort, and greater functional use for ever-changing workplace hazards have to be continually assessed. Textile researchers, industry experts, manufacturers, and distributors are key players who help raise the bar for increased worker protection. And in a larger way, each of these players is a part of your collaborative team and part of the buy-in process you’ll need in order to improve your own protective clothing efforts.

    You’re not on an island

    Don’t get stuck on your own little island — get the right people involved as part of your plan to write a great script for success. Know your current status and the hazards, know what kinds of protection can be offered, know the appropriate standards and follow-up in order to help your people “dress for exceptional safety success.”

    SIDEBAR: Sources for standards info

    Want to learn more about voluntary protection clothing standards and recommendations? Visit these web sites:

    ASMT International — www.astm.org

    National Fire Protection Association — www.nfpa.org

    American National Standards Institute — www.ansi.org

    International Safety Equipment Association — www.safetyequipment.org

    NIOSH Chemical Protective Clothing page — http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ncpc/ncpc1.html

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