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ISO 16602: Trusting test data for chemical protective clothing?

Last week we discussed the evolution of standards, including ISO 16602 for chemical protective clothing.  This week we continue our discussion on key concepts that clarify what standards can and are meant to provide and more importantly how one should approach the use of standards.

Why Use ISO 16602?

For years we've had standards for respirators, hard hats, eye protection, thermally protective clothing, shoes, gloves, high visibility clothing and just about everything that you may use to protect yourself.  Everything that is - except chemical protective clothing. 

Standards serve to provide documentation of industry best practice for use by everyone, manufacturers and end users alike.  They establish minimum performance requirements for manufacturers to meet so that end users can be sure that the products they use offer minimum levels of dry particle, liquid chemical, and gas/vapor protection.  Note that I did not say that standards ensure the end user that the compliant garment they are wearing is suitable for a specific application.  No Standard can provide this security in and of itself.  A complete and thorough job safety analysis and independent, third-party certification to the standard is the only way an end user can have the this level of assurance.

One of the problems with standards is that they have varying levels of conformity assessment and not all require that performance or compliance be evaluated or determined by an independent party.  Conformity assessment can range from manufacturer self-declared (more commonly referred to as “trust me” to full blow independent, third-party testing and certification in which the manufacturer only supplies sample and product for testing.  Each of these holds advantage and disadvantages but there is no question that the standards themselves hold value if for no other reason than establishing threshold performance requirements.

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Are You Buying From a Reputable Protective Clothing Manufacturer?

Protective garments that are manufactured to meet standards are usually more expensive than noncompliant products.  The cost of testing, certification, record keeping, quality assurance programs, and quality materials is not cheap and can add significantly to the cost of the product.  If you make the decision to purchase garments that are compliant with a standard, you want to be sure that you are getting what you pay for in terms of performance.
If you travel much of the world as a part of the Safety Industry, you will not have to go very far to find bogus claims of compliance to standards or even to find fake certifications where certification is required.  Fortunately, in many cases, the manufacturers making fraudulent claims usually do not understand the standards well enough to fake their claims or certifications convincingly.

Having said that, an end user who specifies that garments be complaint with specific standards and purchases them from reputable manufactures can be reasonably certain of the legitimacy of compliance claims and certifications.  The best way a user can verify the reputability of a manufacturer is to ask to see proof of manufacturer’s liability insurance that is valid in their market.  Companies that do not carry liability insurance are very likely to consider themselves immune from litigation in that market or are not garment manufacturers at all and are therefore more likely to make false or misleading claims.

Standards are rather like sausage.  They can be terrific, but you definitely want to know who made it.  That’s you best assurance as to what is in it.

This is especially true for ISO 16602.  While it does establish minimum performance requirements for garments that are complaint, it does not require independent, third-party testing or certification.  ISO 16602 is manufacturer “self-proclaimed” meaning that the manufacture is responsible for conducting the testing either in their own lab or at an independent lab; compiling the test data in a technical file, marking the product appropriately, and handling any complaints.  No independent organization need review the data to be sure that all of the testing is complete, much less meets the standards.

Even though ISO 16602 can go a long way in assuring that the garments workers wear are suitable for specific hazards, and can be used by companies to select and specify adequate garments, ultimately because it lacks a requirement for independent testing or certification, you are still left with having to trust the manufacturer of the garments.

Asking the manufacturer to product copy of the technical file or specific test reports that should be a part of the technical manual is always a good way to assure yourself that the testing has been completed.  Unfortunately, you cannot be sure how many times the test had to be conducted to get the result indicated, or that the testing was conducted correctly in the first place. 

Manufacturer, self-proclaimed compliance is better than nothing, but the end user is still faced with having to trust the manufacturer.  If that is the case, the end user should go further in checking and ask to see proof of a manufacturer’s liability insurance policy.  At least then you will know if you are dealing with a committed manufacturer or one that is likely to “cut corners” and exit the market when a problem arises. 

Next week we will review classification types and sizing that every safety manager should understand when reviewing ISO 16602 data for chemical protective clothing.

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