Choosing clothing to protect workers against chemicals raises a host of technical issues: permeation/breakthrough, puncture/pinhole, resistivity, material conductivity, splash permeation, and heat stress probability, to name some. This article presents excerpts from a survey of industrial hygienists and other safety and health professionals exploring four areas of selecting and using chemical protective clothing: performance factors, usage, common mistakes, and overcoming problems.

Performance Factors

What are some of the performance factors that are important when selecting chemical protective clothing? The survey found that key selection criteria for professionals include:

  • Toxicological and physical characteristics of the hazardous agents involved;

  • Characteristics of the work being done; and

  • Need for decontamination.

Asked to rank considerations for evaluating clothing, professionals listed (in descending order): Impermeability to chemicals, resistivity to chemicals, physical material property versus applications, availability and cost, reusability, and appearance.

The most important user comfort issues cited in the survey were dexterity, heat stress, fit, and the ability to provide total encapsulation against a hazard.

How much do users rely on technical literature? Survey respondents felt that technical information was not always available for specific chemicals or chemical mixtures. And literature that is available was thought to have too much variability due to lack of consistent reporting and standard test protocol.

Ensuring Proper Usage

How do professionals ensure the proper use of chemical protective clothing? It's usually a combination of methods, with the most popular being audits, evaluations and inspections. Written personal protective equipment requirements and charts listing PPE for various jobs are also used, as is training.

Still, some respondents said they had no formal program. "Hit or miss" and "By guess or by golly" were comments.

Common Mistakes

Most respondents reported some misuse of chemical protective apparel. Watch out for these problems, which include:

  • Incompatible matches between clothing and applications - leading to minor burns and irritations, skin absorption of contaminants, heat stress, and a false sense of security.

  • Misuse of clothing for universal applications - which in some cases caused skin exposures, underprotection, and dermatitis.

  • Lack of decontamination - leading to cross-contamination, dermatitis, sensitization, and unnecessary exposure.

  • Failure to inspect garments - which increased the potential for exposure, dermatitis, and injuries through leakage.

  • Improper fit - creating exposure potential.

  • Overspecification - leading to inefficiency, heat stress, discomfort, and removal of the clothing.

Overcoming Problems

Users were most concerned about providing adequate protection in situations where workers face a mix of hazards, such as fire and chemical agents. Providing sufficient protection against a combination of exposure threats was seen as the biggest challenge when selecting clothing. To reduce potential liabilities, users believed viable and consistent product testing is needed, and that test data should be centralized for reference by everyone.

Users also said that it's important for manufacturers to provide adequate technical support and product labeling. "We want to speak to people (manufacturers and distributors) who know what they are talking about; not just salespeople," said one respondent.

"I expect manufacturers and distributors to be honest about what their clothing can and cannot do," said another.