In the universe of personal protective equipment, respiratory protection is the only type of PPE certified by a U.S. government agency. The National Personal Protective Technologies Laboratory (NPPTL), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tests each respirator model and certifies its performance to a standard.

This rigorous validation of product performance includes assessing product operation, criteria for use, labeling and selection. When devices successfully complete testing and evaluation, they are granted an approval number by NIOSH. When a respirator is approved, it is officially deemed a certified product and will bear the NIOSH logo, indicating that it conforms to the level of performance under general use conditions.

Clothing conformance: Not as clear-cut

This one-stop approach to product testing and validation of performance for respirators is not as simple with all other safety equipment.


Protective clothing, for instance, has very different meanings for different professions:

  • If you work in law enforcement, security, civil justice or another profession that involves training and use of a firearm, protective clothing most often is a bullet-proof vest.

  • If your job involves responding to community or national emergencies where the hazard is unknown, the protective apparel that is worn will be the highest level of full body protection from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) hazards. Protection will include a fully encapsulated suit constructed from the highest level of barrier material.

  • Safety garments used at chemical plants, paint shops, farms, machinery shops, and by sanitation workers, landscapers and others are still considered the largest segment of nonwoven protective clothing.

    It’s the breadth of protective clothing equipment — everything from chemical protective garments and suits to firefighters’ turnout gear to industrial fire-retardant garments to bullet-resistant vests — that makes validating clothing performance a problematic process.

    In fact, testing, evaluating and certifying the design, manufacture and performance of protective clothing is often confusing even for those involved in the process. The fact that there is no government agency with statutory responsibility for assessing and certifying clothing performance adds to the confusion and complexity.

    Coordinating efforts

    Now for the good news. A variety of sources are working to lessen the confusion and complexity of validating clothing performance. As is often the case in safety, an unfortunate turn of events has led to beneficial progress.

    The terrorist attacks of 9/11 turned the PPE industry into a growth field, with demand coming from industry, the military and civilians. During heightened terror alerts, those trained to protect civilians need enhanced levels of PPE, plus Americans seek protection for themselves, their children and even pets. They seek products that can protect them at home.

    This has forced the protective clothing industry into a series of assessments:

    • Who needs protective clothing?
    • What level of protection is necessary?
    • What training is required and how often?

    In addition, users want added assurances of hazard-specific protection, which has required PPE suppliers to perform additional testing.

    Here’s another challenge: hazards posed by post-9/11 threats further complicate the application of PPE technology and how to select and integrate different PPE items.

    As a result of these questions and challenges, product standards and tests for protective clothing are numerous and involve the work of many organizations now trying to coordinate their efforts. The U.S. military, PPE manufacturers, government, research, academia, testing and certification organizations, professional societies and trade associations all commit significant resources to standards, regulations, applications of best practices, manufacturing and design issues, PPE decision-making and purchasing, and multi-PPE integration.

    Rapid advances in design and materials to improve protection have produced a variety of garments from disposable and limited-use to reusable garments that can be decontaminated. Manufacturers continue to try to meet the needs of users who ultimately seek protective clothing that provides protection from all hazards, 100 percent of the time, while being breathable and inexpensive.

    This is a challenge that might never be met. Employees involved in responding to emergencies, whether man-made or natural disasters, or in treating victims of these incidents, believe additional training and protective equipment is needed to ensure their safety. Their requests can be problematic because protective clothing is designed to protect against specific hazardous agents — a single suit is incapable of protecting against all possible hazards. Most safety equipment also requires specific training to select, wear, and dispose of equipment safely. Donning and doffing protective garments properly is difficult, and if worn improperly, can actually pose a danger to the untrained user.

    Standards activity

    Standards help provide a blueprint for meeting some of these end-user needs. The protective clothing industry has not seen a flood of voluntary new standards and regulations, but significant revisions and additions to many existing standards have been made in the areas of chemical protection, fire protection, and bullet-resistant garments.

    The challenge remains to develop standards that provide a comprehensive, hazard-based approach to garment design, testing, operations and use — while not being too cumbersome for users who need help making appropriate purchases.

    Here is an update on some standards activity:

  • ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) and the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) have published standards that include tests that challenge protective clothing to many hazardous agents to ensure performance under specific conditions.

    A suite of ASTM tests is used industry-wide to gauge a fabric’s tensile strength, air and liquid permeability and chemical resistance. Manufacturers use the ASTM test results as a reference for end-users.

  • The NFPA 1994 standard establishes performance and certification criteria for protective ensembles for chemical/biological terrorism incidents. Current standards specify three classes of suits: classes 1, 2 and 3 for different levels of protection. 1994 also requires fabrics to be tested against highly penetrating agents such as toxic industrial chemicals and potential terrorist agents such as mustard and sarin gas.

  • Another tool that can assist users in purchasing appropriate PPE is The Responder Knowledge Base (RKB), www.

    The RKB is a database for responders, linking products, standards and standardized equipment lists, test results, and information on availability of grant funding. All professions that have response capabilities, including secondary and tertiary responders, healthcare, remediation, recovery and other support personnel, can search the RKB for information on current safety equipment, how it performs and what tests and standards it meets.

  • With the protective apparel market focused on chemical, nuclear and biological protection, we cannot forget workers who are not part of the emergency response community — but rely just as much on protective apparel in their jobs to prevent contamination from the materials that they work with.

    A draft standard for these more industrial-type applications exists in the U.S. and internationally as ISO FDIS 16602 draft standard Protective clothing for protection against chemicals-Classification, labeling and performance requirements. The existence of an international standard would offer uniform performance criteria for garments worn in the majority of industrial settings. And an international standard would offer baseline information of protective garments for countries that do not have their own protective clothing standards, but whose workers require protective clothing to work safely.

    Look for an approved ISO standard for protective clothing in early 2006.