In case you haven't noticed, our world of hazards is growing exponentially. The days of hard hats, safety glasses and steel toe boots being the complete protective clothing ensemble are long gone.

Awareness of personal protective clothing in occupational environments, as well as in our society as a whole, is light-years ahead of just a few years ago. Our kids think nothing of seeing high-tech bulletproof vests on soldiers and police officers, not to mention newsmen and criminals. "Level A" suits that once brought back memories of the first moon walk are now commonplace at highway spills, terror incidents and at the workplace.

Exponential growth

Just as the number and magnitude of hazards has grown exponentially over the past several decades, so has the technology and variety of protective clothing. As hazards have become more specialized, the technology and specialization of protective clothing has also increased right along with it. In most occupations - in fact, for most job tasks within an occupation - there are high-efficiency, comfortable protective clothing options that weren't even available just a few years back.

For example, one particular new hood on the market represents an inexpensive innovation. It is similar to a sandblasting hood but is lightweight, versatile and can be equipped with a vortex cooler on the employee's belt, turning a hot, dirty job into a clean and comfortable one.

Almost every piece of protective clothing or equipment you can need or imagine has been pushed into the high-tech world. Some chemical clothing now cools or heats the body while at the same time monitors body temperature, respirations and pulse rate. But not all protective clothing is chemical-related. Chemical protective clothing is just one of many areas.

Many classes

As many occupations as you can think of, there are that many entire classes of protective clothing. Healthcare providers, for example, have protective clothing specific to them. From surgical caps in the operating room to neoprene suits for divers, protective clothing is specialized and should be carefully and knowledgeably selected for each and every task.

A key factor to remember is that most protective clothing comes in an assortment of levels of protection. In chemical suits, EPA designates Levels A through D, with A being fully encapsulated and D being a basic coverall, hard hat and safety glasses level of protection. The NFPA has their own designation: vapor protective suits (NFPA Standard 1991) provide the "gas tight" protection; liquid splash protective suits (NFPA Standard 1992) are the next level (similar to the EPA Level B); and, finally, "support function protective garments" (NFPA Standard 1993) are the least level of protection specifically identified. Dust respirators have been assigned similar protection level indicators: "R" for oil resistant; "N" for non-oil resistant; and "P" for oil proof.

The point here is that any type of personal protective clothing or equipment has very specific abilities and limitations. It is critical that employees are provided with the correct protective clothing for the specific task they are performing.

Determining what's right

In fact, 29 CFR 1910.132 clearly requires that every employer assess the workplace, determine the hazards present, and then provide affected employees with appropriate equipment (and clothing) to protect them from the hazardous conditions. Years ago that may have meant a hard hat and safety glasses, but today that could mean anything from a bulletproof vest and night vision goggles to air-cooled breathing air supplied in a total body suit.

Performing a hazard analysis allows you to systematically ensure that your employees are properly protected. A hazard analysis seems easy enough, but it is the very core of offering effective protective clothing. Without a good hazard analysis of not just every job, but every detailed task, it is impossible to provide protective clothing that you're sure is adequate for the hazard. The analysis should follow a written format that ensures all types of hazards are addressed, including biological, radiation, chemical, heat, impaction, repetitive motions, and so on.

Training, of course

Employees must not only be provided with the proper personal clothing and equipment, but they must be trained on its limitations, breakthrough signs and proper use and replacement schedules. Employees who are improperly trained on what proper personal protective clothing is and how it should be used are just as dangerous as an employee without the proper clothing.

Gloves are a good example of protective clothing that must be specifically selected to properly protect employees. With the increased numbers and kinds of hazards have come an increased variety of available gloves. Gloves have advanced in design for specific hazard protection as much as, if not more than, any other piece of protective clothing. The years of calling for a "rubber" glove are gone forever. Three areas of tremendous advancements are chemical resistance, healthcare/first responder, and heat resistance.

A good training exercise is to acquire a large assortment of gloves and then give employees examples of specific job tasks that require different gloves for the different hazards presented. It is a great awareness tool to ensure employees don't think that just any glove will do.

No matter what level of personal clothing your employees require, make sure they have the training to select the appropriate level of protection, how to use it properly, what cleaning and storage is needed, and how to determine the safe life of the clothing. Most importantly, make sure your employees actually use it.

SIDEBAR: Don't forget the skin

Protecting the skin - the body's largest organ - must be included in your protective clothing program. Some basics that are often overlooked regarding skin protection are sunscreen and barrier creams, as well as undergarment liners that prevent chaffing and pinching and help with body temperature control. None of these products by themselves offer much, if any, protection from the actual hazard, but they help protect from the protective clothing itself and add to the overall comfort and length of time protective clothing can be worn.