Depending on the level of exposure, chemical burns can cause permanent skin and tissue damage, and even death. And a chemical burn injury can cost your company millions of dollars in OSHA fines, hospital fees, legal costs, lost productivity, increased insurance premiums and reputation damage.
PPE basics for chemical hazards
The types of PPE required to protect against chemical hazards are determined by the kinds of chemicals present and the level of possible exposure for employees. PPE can include protective lab coats or coveralls, chemical-resistant gloves and boots, goggles, and in extreme cases, even fully enclosed chemical suits. Depending on the other hazards present in a given work environment, these items may also need to be flame-resistant (FR).
Specific information on protection against chemical hazards can be found in safety standards and regulations such as OSHA 29 CFR 1910, subpart Z; OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1450; and NFPA 45. Before selecting PPE, be sure to consult all the regulations and standards that apply to your industry.
Once appropriate PPE has been identified, it must be worn consistently and correctly to be effective. If protective apparel is uncomfortable, employees may neglect wearing it or alter it in ways that can hinder protection, such as rolling up the sleeves.
Where a high level of chemical protection is needed, a degree of discomfort is inevitable, and multiple PPE components will likely be necessary. For workplaces where a lower level of protection is sufficient — such as environments with the potential for only small, inadvertent chemical-splash exposure — recent innovations have made PPE significantly more comfortable and convenient.
Innovations in chemical-splash protection
New technologies make it possible to get effective chemical-splash protection and comfort in a single, convenient garment. For example, reusable lab coats offering chemical-splash protection (CP) are now available. These lab coats resemble traditional white coats, but they are made from a comfortable fabric treated with a proprietary finish to repel liquids and resist the penetration and wicking of small, inadvertent splashes of liquid chemicals. Unlike chemical-resistant aprons, they protect the arms and the whole torso, as well as the upper legs.
Where both chemical-splash hazards and thermal hazards, such as flash fire, may be present, FR/CP products (which currently include lab coats and coveralls) protect against heat and flames as well as against dangerous chemicals.
When selecting PPE for protection against liquid chemical hazards (or any other hazards), proper protection comes first. Other factors to take into account include comfort, durability and cost-effectiveness.
Comfort is closely related to protection -- uncomfortable PPE is less likely to be worn correctly. Garments made from lightweight, breathable fabrics tend to be more comfortable. And garments that fit well are generally more comfortable. Ensuring that PPE fits well may mean seeking styles designed specifically for women if you are outfitting female employees.
Durability and cost effectiveness are other considerations. Durable products are less likely to rip or become worn down after multiple uses, helping to ensure effective long-term protection. While disposable and/or less durable products may have lower upfront costs, they will also need to be replaced more frequently, leading to higher costs over time.