Knowing the potential dangers involved in the handling of hazardous materials in the workplace can make all the difference in maintaining a safe environment in life-threatening situations. Any spill or incendiary event that occurs can pose an imminent threat to the health and safety of anyone exposed to the materials. The materials or their combustion byproducts can be detrimental to the environment, potentially causing widespread contamination and subsequent exposure issues.

The first step in handling such materials is training. Safety officers and industrial hygienists must train employees about the hazards of toxic, flammable or reactive chemicals. The chemicals must be properly stored and segregated from other reactive chemicals. Employees must be trained how to respond in the event of an emergency, including when to evacuate and when they should call for professional rescue teams.

Accidental or intentional

In recent years, as terror threats have escalated, Congress has been looking closely at scenarios where a terrorist group or hate group could use chemicals as weapons. Hazmat incidents may involve accidental or intentional release of hazardous chemicals that can be very toxic, corrosive, flammable or reactive.

The Department of Homeland Security has classified the agents that could be used by terrorists as CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) or Incendiary agents. A major emphasis of Homeland Security involves protection from chemicals that are not nerve gases or blister agents, such as Sarin, Soman, VX or Mustard Gas. These Toxic Industrial Materials (TIMs) are chemicals other than chemical warfare agents that have harmful effects and are used in a variety of settings such as manufacturing facilities, maintenance areas and general storage areas. They may not be immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), but they can have serious effects on an individual’s health after multiple low-level exposures; they can affect a wide variety of bodily systems or organs. Some common examples of TIMs include, but are not limited to:

  • Chemical manufacturing plants: chlorine, peroxides, gases, plastics, pesticides;
  • Food processing facilities: ammonia;
  • Chemical transportation: rail tank cars, tankers trucks, pipelines, river barges;
  • Gasoline and fuel storage tanks.

Some of the chemicals considered TIMs are a bit surprising. For instance, most people probably could not fathom where Sarin or Mustard Gas could be found, but even in small municipalities almost anyone could think of where you could find sulfuric acid, chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia. Almost everyone has driven next to a tanker of fuel on a highway or seen huge fuel storage tank farms throughout communities. These are potential soft targets for terrorists.

These materials are considered TIMs because they are produced in quantities of >30 tons per year at one facility. Though not as lethal as nerve gas, they are much more dangerous because of the amount of chemical (multi-ton) available for terrorists to use.

Specifying PPE

In preparation for such unthinkable incidents, safety officers and industrial hygienists must specify the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). First-responders must be trained how to identify the hazard. Determination of the hazard that is present is the first step. Hazmat teams that have air monitoring equipment must be contacted.

The initial isolation zone — a circle around where the actual ground zero event occurred — can be anywhere from 100 feet to up to seven miles depending on the toxic nature or flammability of the substance identified. For the initial area surrounding a hazmat or TIM occurrence, PPE includes Level A fully encapsulating suits with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). These vapor protective suit ensembles are designed for maximum protection in the “hot zone.” These suit ensembles must be certified as compliant with NFPA 1991 Standard on Vapor-Protective Suits for Hazardous Chemical Emergencies or NFPA 1994 Standard on Protective Ensemble for Chemical/ Biological Terrorism Incidents.

The area immediately surrounding the “hot zone” is the “warm zone,” where decontamination of the first-responders occurs. In this area, splash protective suit ensembles are worn. These Level B ensembles should be certified as compliant with NFPA 1992 Standard on Liquid Splash-Protective Ensembles and Clothing for Hazardous Materials Emergencies.

Types of gloves

For hot zones or initial isolation zones, depending on the nature of the chemical involved in the release, fully-encapsulating suits including a triple glove combination on laminated gloves with Butyl gloves and a protective over-glove are used. These are clamped or taped onto the chemical protective suit that offers the highest degree of chemical protection.

For warm zone decontamination, normally a splash protective suit ensemble is worn. This may include chemical splash protective suits with gloves that are certified to NFPA 1992. Gloves made of nitrile or Neoprene may be the best choice for these areas. Buyers should look for 100-percent nitrile gloves that are certified as compliant with NFPA 1992, 2005 Edition. Nitrile gloves that are NFPA certified may be the best choice for Level B warm zone decontamination from hazmat incidents or incidents involving TIMs that are hydrocarbon or fuel-based. Nitrile is the best polymer choice for fuels and aliphatic hydrocarbons such as kerosene or diesel or jet fuel.

Additionally, gloves made from 100-percent Neoprene that are NFPA certified may be the best choice for Level B warm zone decontamination from hazmat incidents or incidents involving TIMs that are acid and caustic in nature. Neoprene is an excellent polymer for protection from a broader range of acids than nitrile and offers protection from almost every kind of acid.


First-receivers are usually healthcare or EMS personnel who receive the victims of an exposure incident. They have the responsibility for patient care in the event of a hazardous materials incident and should be concerned about whether decontamination has occurred or whether the decontamination is complete.

Where decontamination is incomplete, the hospital or ambulance then becomes the warm zone and must be decontaminated. Level B protective clothing ensembles are needed. If decontamination has been completed, then protection from body fluids and bloodborne pathogens is needed.

First-receivers should use PPE that is certified as compliant with NFPA 1999 Standard on Protective Clothing for Emergency Medical Operations.

To make the right PPE choices, set up a list of the chemicals that could be involved in an intentional or unintentional spill. You can find the right PPE by searching the Internet at each manufacturer’s site and find exactly what works for that chemical. That way, whether the incident involves heavy worst-case exposure to the chemical or incidental splash exposure, you can be ready for the unexpected.