Protective Clothing: Keep 'Em Safe & Comfy

May 1, 2008
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What is the correct clothing for the job, and what type of fabric is needed for the protection required? This is a question that needs to be addressed as new safety standards are implemented and as hazards are identified in the workplace.

Protective clothing can protect against a variety of hazards including: fire and hot surfaces; chemicals; cold weather conditions; electrical hazards such as electric arc flash; bloodborne pathogens and other biological hazards.

Flame resistant clothing is standard wear in most chemical plants and is now even more prevalent as companies try to meet the NFPA electrical arc flash standard. Protective clothing — like other personal protective equipment (PPE) — isn't always accepted openly by the workforce.

As you consider protective clothing, you have to look at the fabric and determine how well that fabric will protect the worker and the level of comfort it will provide.

What's the risk?

When identifying protective clothing for specific uses, be sure to do a risk/hazard assessment. The assessment should evaluate the hazard and identify the type of protective clothing needed. For example:

Task: Sampling a corrosive acid.

Hazard: Acid, chemical burns.

Ask the following questions:

1. What parts of the body are at risk?

2. Can the hazard be engineered so as to reduce or eliminate exposure?

3. If redesign won't eliminate the hazard, then what is needed to protect that part of the body?

Let's say that the parts of the body at risk are the hands, forearms and front of the body that could be splashed when the acid is sampled.

The first step would be to evaluate the sampling process and see if there are physical changes that can be made to eliminate the hazard. It could be something as simple as a splashguard, or maybe something more complex, like an in-line sampling system.

If the problem can't be avoided by physical changes, then evaluate the risk.

1. How often is the worker doing this task?

2. What is the worst-case scenario if there is a spill or splash?

Using this information, you will be able to make a decision as to whether the protective equipment should be worn during all work hours or just when doing this task. For example, a worker who only takes one sample a shift may be able to put on gloves and a face shield and don an apron. On the other hand, a person who is at risk throughout their work shift will need to wear protective clothing during all work hours.

Offer options

Clothing comfort is a major consideration. If the person choosing the clothing is not going to be wearing it, get someone involved who will actually be using the protective clothing.

There are several types of flame resistant clothing available, for example. Some are lighter, some are cooler to wear, and they are offered in different styles. Keeping all of these options in mind when making a choice is critical.

Types of protective clothing may include:

Flame resistant — Do your employees face hazards that could set their clothing ablaze (a flash fire, electric arc, metal splash, etc.)? If so, by all means you should protect them with flame-resistant (FR) clothing. It could mean the difference between life and death. FR clothing does not ignite and continue to burn. Today's technology to produce FR fabrics is complex, what with new developments regarding engineered fabrics such as durable FR cotton and cotton blend fabrics. FR clothing mitigates burns and offers wearers time to escape. You need to do your homework to research various FR fabrics on the market.

Chemical resistant — When considering chemical-resistant clothing, focus on permeation specifically as it would apply to a splash. How quickly will the chemical get through the cloth to the skin? The material must be able to resist degradation, penetration and permeation by the chemical.

Biological hazards/bloodborne pathogens — Clothing can be designed to limit exposure to bloodborne pathogens. Here again, you will want cloth that reduces permeation, so in the event of an exposure to a bloodborne pathogen, you have some protection. Typically this clothing would be gowns and smocks, but it could be complete body protection when dealing with biological hazards.

Cold weather — There is a good selection of clothing for cold weather wear. Insulated pants, coats and jumpsuits have come a long way over the years. Employees working in refrigerated areas can be protected against the cold and, at the same time, be able to move freely to perform their jobs.

The next step

Vendors are a good source of information when choosing protective clothing. Companies that primarily handle uniforms can give you detailed information about the types of materials and styles available. Look at several suppliers before making your final choice.

Remember that no matter what the hazard, pick the best protective clothing while considering comfort. Using these principles, your employees will work safer and will readily wear their protective clothing.

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