Limited-use protective clothing can be cost-effective and convenient to use. But questions about re-use and decontamination can be daunting.

How many times can you wear these garments before disposal? Is it worth the time and money necessary to clean them? If so, how can you be sure the contaminants are gone? In the end, how do you safely get rid of contaminated garments?

Answering these questions requires industrial hygiene common sense, some homework, and hazard assessments, say clothing experts. There are no definitive solutions to the limited-use riddle. Plenty of references (see sidebar), but no universal guidelines. This article covers key points to consider when using this common type of workplace clothing.

Risk assessment

First, make sure limited-use garments are what you need. Compare their qualities to reusable, more durable, suits. Limited-use suits are made of lighter materials such as Tyvek®, Saranex®, and Tempro®. Durables can be made of heavier materials like butyl rubber, PVC, or chlorinated polyethylene. Disposables can start at $3 a suit; reusables at around $1500. Limited-use garments can be cost-effective even if tossed after one use. Durables need to be decontaminated.

It takes some thought to figure out how many times your workers should reuse disposables, if at all. What hazards do they face? Will they need a suit to withstand repeated stretching and reaching movements, like climbing ladders? How long each day will the coveralls, moon suits, and the like be worn?

Questions like these show the need to assess hazards, say many pros in the field.

"The art is figuring out what we are trying to protect workers from," says John Zvetan, Protective Clothing and Equipment Committee chair for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. There’s more to a risk assessment than just reading about permeation rates, he adds.

However, knowing permeation (how long it takes a substance to move, on a molecular level, through a barrier) and degradation (when a chemical is reduced to a lesser form) rates for chemicals in your workplace is essential to determine necessary clothing materials and how long they should be exposed to substances. Heat stress should also be considered, says Norman W. Henry, CIH, a member of the AIHA Protective Clothing and Equipment Committee and an industrial hygienist for DuPont.

Testing different fabrics and exposing samples to hazards at your plant is another safe way to find what clothing suits you best. Clothing distributors and manufacturers can also provide technical assistance.

Reuse opinions

Once you settle on the right fabric and style, how much use can you get out of the garment? There’s no consensus among experts.

Most pros interviewed for this article believe limited-use suits should be worn only once, for that one trip to a dirty or contaminated area. But some say workers can keep wearing them until they can no longer afford protection. Here’s a sampling of opinions: ·

  • Use one suit per day, says Robert E. Sheriff, president of Atlantic Environmental, Inc., of Dover, N.J. If there’s a higher risk, change at lunch breaks or if contamination or physical damage occurs, he adds. ·
  • It’s acceptable and cost-effective to use suits several times if no contamination or physical damage occurs, says Keyur Patel, senior project manager for Clayton Environmental Consultants. Recycling cuts down on waste generation, he believes. ·
  • Limited-use suits are cheap enough to throw away after one use just to be safe, says Zvetan. "When in doubt, throw it out."

Suits can be visually tested for reuse. Experts have slightly different ideas on how to go about it, but here’s a composite list: ·

  • Check seams, zipper closures, adjustment straps, and other types of closures or attached items, including respirator valves, for tears or holes. ·
  • Check the suit for wear and tear –abrasions, worn spots, white chalky spots, and cracked materials and laminates. ·
  • Light-test the garment inside and out using a flashlight. Check for the above-mentioned items. Suits can also be air-pressure tested following ASTM test methods.

Decon worthiness

Nine of the ten experts in the protective clothing field interviewed for this article say decontaminating limited-use suits is not economical or in the best interests of safety. It costs just as much to buy the decon equipment and pay one person for the time it takes to clean as it does to buy a new suit, several explain.

Zvetan hesitates to even use the word decontaminate because he feels one can never be sure if contaminants have been totally expunged.

Saving the cost of a disposable suit by trying to stretch its use is not worth the risk to an employee. It’s bad industrial hygiene practice, says Sheriff.

Disposal rules

No standards govern the repeated use and decontamination of limited-use garments, but EPA definitions of hazardous waste affect how you dispose of contaminated clothing. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) defines a hazardous waste as a solid waste (including liquids and gases) or a combination of solid wastes that may, because of its quantity, concentration, or physical, chemical or infectious characteristics: ·
  • Cause or significantly contribute to an increase in mortality or in serious irreversible, or incapacitating reversible, illness; or ·
  • Pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of, or otherwise managed.

Dispose of toxic contaminated suits the same as you would any hazardous substance at the work site, says Henry. If you’re doing asbestos work, put clothing in the container for the landfill. If suits have been exposed to chemicals, add the garments to the hazardous waste barrel, says Dr. Kevin Phillips of Fanning, Phillips, and Molnar, an engineering firm in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

The AIHA Protective Clothing and Equipment Committee plans to draft a set of guidelines for the utilization and disposal of limited-use protective clothing. But the task is a heavy load and will take a while to prepare, says Zvetan.

Expert advice

Experts have designed their own methods and general rules to answer the limited-use riddle. Here’s a checklist of how-to advice: ·
  • Always go back to the basics of good IH common sense, risk assessment, and technical understanding to get the job done. ·
  • Ensure workers know how to properly don and doff the suits. Have them practice during the training session using a test suit. ·
  • Support training by getting front-line foremen support, says Rich Uhlar, industrial hygienist for the International Chemical Workers’ Union. ·
  • Just as important as employee training, make sure proper facilities are available. Employees need a place to hang their protective suits for reuse. Throwing them in a locker leads to cracking, tears, and delamination (when the inner fabric and outer film of a suit begin to separate), says Uhlar. ·
  • For each job, set up clothing guidelines. If the chore is routine, set up a matrix board or chart for employee reference that specifies the proper clothing for each task, says Zvetan. ·
  • Develop your own worksheet similar to the one developed by DuPont’s Henry that is included in chapter nine of "Chemical Protective Clothing, Vol. II" (see sidebar). Include information such as job class and tasks, summary of each task, potential and actual hazards, type of contact, contact period, toxicological properties, recommended clothing materials, equipment needed above and beyond suit (such as gauntlets, etc.), and the training required.