Avoiding common pitfalls in choosing the most effective chemical safety clothing for your workforce
Many Safety Managers now rely on CE standards to ensure that the PPE they choose will provide protection. But is ensuring PPE is certified enough to safeguard the workforce?
It is incredibly important to correctly understand what the standards mean – and how that affect’s workforce safety in the real world. In this blog, we explain why when choosing the most effective chemical safety products it is essential to look beyond the standards and consider the chemicals, the environment and the tasks.
Look at the detail of standards
There are many common misunderstandings when it comes to the use of CE standards to choose the most effective chemical safety products.
Safe-Use: Permeation testing (to EN 6529) is commonly misinterpreted. It is perceived by many to provide guidance regarding safe wear time for a garment. This is completely incorrect – the breakthrough figure should only be used for fabric comparison, to indicate if one fabric is a better barrier than another. It does not provide an indication of safe-use.
EN 14126 medical safety clothing classification
Most selectors of safety clothing for medical applications and protection against infective agents such as Ebola and Coronavirus know this is the key standard. Yet fewer understand the detail of the four tests within it and that a related classification given by some manufacturers for test ISO 16603 is simply wrong – a misinterpretation of the standard that could mean users are much less protected than they believe.
Minimum Performance: CE Types are a good guide to the different types of chemical contact and can provide an indication of garment choice. However, standards provide minimum performance requirements whereas clearly many real-world applications require more protection than the minimum. A common example is EN 13982 – the Type 5 protection against hazardous dusts standard. Whilst this is commonly interpreted to require a simple coverall with hood, cuffs and ankles, the standard itself states that in some instances – in the case of highly hazardous dusts or environments - a full gas-tight suit might be required.
Imperfect Tests: While many tests are legal requirements to attain certification, the laboratory conditions do not always replicate real world situations. For example, the vertical flammability test (ISO 15025) used for Secondary FR Workwear standard EN 14116 is a simple test to indicate fabric reaction to brief contact with flame but a poor indication of real world performance. Only thermal mannequin testing is a good indicator of how effective secondary FR workwear is. Watch the burn comparison video to see how different fabrics perform.
Different Standards: Not all standards are product standards, safety managers need to look at test standards, as well as reference standards. What type of standard certification has a product achieved – and what does that mean in practice?
Lack of Certification Clarity
Certification is not always what you think it is because in some cases Notified Bodies may allow manufacturers to certify to a standard whilst excluding certain clauses, or to certify a product that only meets the minimum requirements under certain additional conditions. This may not be immediately apparent. For example:
- Some Secondary Flame Retardant (FR) workwear appears to be certified to the EN 14116 standard, and yet a careful review of the certification shows that testing has excluded the vital test on the zip introduced in the latest version of the standard. This means the zip has not been tested to ensure it doesn’t melt or misfunction.
- Some chemical suits appear to be certified to Type 3 & 4 – and yet careful analysis of their user instructions shows that Type 3 is only achieved under certain circumstances such as adding additional tape to the zip flap, which the user may or may not remember to do.
In addition, some standards permit a certain degree of ingress in some case, as long as the garment meets the allowable calibrated limit. For example, some penetration of contaminating liquid or gas can occur in garments that pass chemical protection for Types 3,4, 5 and 6 - the liquid resistance tests (Type 3, 4 and 6) allow a small amount of penetration of the liquid whilst up to 15% of the dust can penetrate inside a garment for the Type 5 hazardous dust protection test. So, a pass in the tests does not mean NO penetration has occurred. This could be important in the case of highly toxic chemicals. Garments may also be modified to provide additional protection and without these modifications may not pass the test – if these modifications are not used in the real world, workers are not adequately protected.
Assess the environment
The fact that samples of every PPE suit undergoes rigorous testing before certification and distribution is important, but these tests do not provide enough information for a safety manager to determine whether the PPE is right for a specific application. Choosing effective chemical safety products for your workforce requires many additional considerations – not least the type of applications being undertaken.
What chemicals are in use within that application? Do you have detailed information regarding the level of toxicity of each chemical? It is also important to understand how the chemical is being used and the spray type. A light spray will require different protection to a jet spray or liquid spray.
It is also essential to consider the physical demands of the task. A higher strength fabric could be required, or a different design, if the worker is going to be climbing ladders, crawling or working in confined spaces - even though permeation analysis and/or the hazard spray type indicate a lighter/more comfortable garment.
Consider the consequences of comfort - or the lack of it.
Comfort is not just an optional luxury... it is also a safety issue. PPE that is unnecessarily uncomfortable a rel likely to not wear a suit correctly. They may leave a zip partially down to allow air circulation, or they may regularly adjust a suit in a critical area or situation. In this case they are not properly protected.
So consider ways of maximising comfort without compromising protection beyond the point that it can be safely compromised - such as the use of Cool Suits or different designs. Choosing the right chemical suit is about making sure users are not OVER-protected as well as that they are ADEQUATELY protected. As PPE is always a compromise between protection and comfort, if workers do not wear PPE properly because they are so uncomfortable, it may be safer to look at what options are available to shift that balance more towards comfort.
Risk assessment & User Selection
Armed with this information, a safety manager can then undertake a robust risk assessment to support the correct choice of effective chemical safety products. What risks are workers exposed to? Can the risk be removed or – if not – mitigated? Having understood the chemicals and the hazards, what would be the most appropriate solution – what level of protection is required?
Don’t forget to ensure workers fully understand the hazard they are facing (if they understand the hazard they are more likely to take greater care with protection on a day-to-day basis) and involve them in the selection process – the more engaged the workforce the higher the level of compliance to PPE safety processes. Workers need to try the PPE to better understand the real world issues its use presents, including comfort, durability issues, whether its noise generation means communication is difficult, and the challenges associated with donning and doffing. Learn more about balancing PPE comfort with protection in our blog.
Standards are important. They are the foundation for any safety manager choosing effective chemical safety products, but they cannot be used in isolation or taken at face value. Managers need to understand the standards, their specific limitations and how that may affect workers.
Furthermore, rather than relying solely on standards, it is important to undertake a comprehensive analysis of tasks, the chemicals and the environmental factors that may influence the risk posed to your workers. Combining a thorough risk assessment with worker input is key to not only selecting the right PPE but also ensuring a high level of workforce adoption.