Armed with a proper understanding of chemical exposure risks and available safety solutions, engineers can be confident in selecting the best personal protective equipment to provide reliable barriers to workplace hazards
There is a tendency to think about personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace in the abstract — as a requirement to be checked off, rather than a critical component of worker safety and often the last line of defense. Most organizations care deeply about safety, of course, but their understanding of PPE — especially PPE designed to protect against chemical exposure — can be limited.
That is a problem, because different chemicals react differently to different PPE materials, and even today, there are examples of well-meaning companies that provide the wrong PPE to workers handling various types of dangerous chemicals. Just last year, there was an incident in which a manufacturer discovered a gap in its PPE program only when workers suffered adverse effects, believed to be because of exposure to chemicals in the workplace. It was a costly mistake, resulting in significant fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA; Washington, D.C.; www.osha.gov) and an overhaul of the company’s PPE program and other related safety and occupational hygiene protocols.
This type of situation is not unusual, and it is easy to understand why. There are anywhere from 25,000 to 84,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. today, and this wide range is indicative of the difficulty the industry faces in tracking and cataloguing chemicals that are in active use. Imagine the challenge facing employers — they know they need chemicals with certain properties to produce their products, but the universe of chemicals is vast, changing every day, and those chemicals have diverse properties and present different risks in the workplace. Although the challenge to select the proper chemical PPE is daunting, it is certainly not impossible. This article provides some guidelines to help in the selection of PPE for chemical processing facilities.
Where to begin
There are some basic questions employers should ask when putting together a chemical PPE plan as part of their hazard risk assessment program, with the answers providing a reliable roadmap to optimal safety for their workers.
What are the chemical hazards?This seems simple, but it is far from it. Many work environments have multiple individual chemicals and combinations of chemicals (mixtures), and PPE providing protection from one chemical may not protect from others (Figure 1). Certain PPE materials provide effective protection against specific chemicals. Table 1 provides some common examples, but employers should consult with a manufacturer before choosing any PPE. Having a thorough inventory of chemicals that are present in a workplace is critical to ensuring appropriate risk assessments are in place, with appropriate worker-exposure prevention measures in place, including PPE. From there, it is important that any potential cross-exposure for multitasking employees is understood and accounted for in the PPE plan. Maybe that means different types of PPE, or maybe it changes the way workers approach various tasks, but the goal is to avoid unexpected exposure for workers who believe they are protected.
It is critical to remember that there is no single product that will protect a worker against all types of chemical hazards. Safety managers must therefore be experts in their work environments and provide the appropriate PPE for every given situation. Sometimes, the appropriate PPE can consist of multiple pieces of equipment, such as protective clothing, facemasks, gloves, boots and so on (Figure 2). Proper protection may also demand additional performance requirements, especially where there are secondary hazards, such as heat and flames, or explosive atmospheres to consider. It is not uncommon to see workers in complex chemical environments utilizing multi-hazard or multi-risk PPE to ensure they are protected against all hazards.
What are the physical hazards and needs of the working environment?It is easy to get lost in the complexity of chemical protection, but the reality is the risks to workers are not limited to chemical exposure. What are the threats for abrasion, exposure to heat and flame or extreme temperatures, or tears or punctures to protective clothing? Even a perfectly matched chemical protective suit is ineffective if it has a hole in it. There are solutions for multiple hazards — sometimes all-in-one PPE solutions, other times layered protection. The first step is understanding all the risks.
How are the workers exposed to the chemical? This is an important and often overlooked consideration. PPE selection can be different depending on whether the chemical is in liquid, particulate or gaseous form, and if the potential exposure is brief or extended. Exposure to saturating liquid spray for example, versus a light splash, presents a different challenge for PPE and therefore must be considered as part of the risk assessment (Figure 3).
Next to the nature of the chemical, exposure time is one of the greatest determinants of appropriate protection. When assessing the effectiveness of PPE as it relates to exposure time, it is important to understand its performance in terms of chemical penetration and permeation. Penetration is the movement of large and likely visible quantities of chemical through a PPE material and can occur by movement of the chemical through a hole or a faulty seam, for example. Permeation is the process by which very small and likely invisible quantities of chemical pass through the protective material on a molecular level (typically in microgram quantities). It can be measured as a benchmark relative to other PPE in terms of permeation rate (how fast the chemical passes through the PPE material) and normalized breakthrough time (the time taken to reach a specified permeation rate, enabling different test laboratories to test to the same threshold).
The normalized results of penetration or permeation tests are used to assist health and safety managers in their selection of the relevant and appropriate PPE for their application.
What are the physical effects of chemical exposure?There are many chemicals today that are used in varying forms depending on the chemical or chemical formulation (such as solid powders, dispersions, liquids and liquid mixtures, gases that may be pressurized and so on). Many of these chemicals have the ability to cause significant harm that can occur through skin contact, inhalation or ingestion if the correct PPE is not used. Depending on the nature of the chemical hazard, noticeable effects from exposure may take years or even decades to become apparent and may be life-threatening or indeed life-limiting. Therefore, in order to prevent occupational injuries or diseases that may not become known until much later on, it is important for health and safety managers to seek support from manufacturers and other experts to understand the required PPE needed to protect their workforce.
Will the use of PPE introduce new workplace hazards? Could the use of PPE increase the likelihood of musculoskeletal injuries or conditions due to changing the way the worker moves while performing a task? Could it weaken a worker’s grip, putting the worker and others at risk? One common issue is workers wearing PPE that impacts their performance or simply is not comfortable, which too often prompts them to remove the gloves, mask or suit out of frustration.
This is common and is especially prevalent when the mindset is “the heavier or thicker the product, the greater the protection.” That simply is not true in many cases and becomes counterproductive as workers reject the too-heavy suits or gloves. When that happens, they too often remove their PPE in hazardous environments, as the equipment is perceived to be more of a hindrance than help. Effective PPE selection is about comfort and performance every bit as much as it is about protection.
The answers to these questions will help in choosing PPE materials, as well as with other decisions, such as whether the equipment required should be reusable or disposable — or, as they are often called, limited-use apparel. In apparel, there are indications that industry is moving more toward the use of disposable suits, because the materials are often lightweight, flexible and provide broad protection from multiple chemical and secondary hazards. That said, reusable technology still has its place in the market and there are environments where a typically higher initial investment is worthwhile, either on the basis of physical performance or strength, or in terms of total cost of ownership versus disposable or limited-use solutions. This is true especially if the suits are required to be worn frequently and appropriate cleaning techniques and storage are available.
Regulations and standardization
PPE selection does not happen in isolation. There are a number of external factors that contribute to organizational decisions about workplace safety and PPE, and there are trends across the industry that influence PPE program decisions, as detailed below.
Vendor standardization and consolidation.Between suits, gloves, goggles, boots, helmets, respiratory equipment and countless other safety solutions, navigating PPE selection can be a seemingly complicated process. However, there can be benefits to working closely with a vendor that can provide multiple PPE solutions, thus reducing the complexity of PPE that may be used on site and focusing on a core selection of compatible PPE specifically designed for the hazards to be faced.
Global standardization and regulatory considerations.This is a complex challenge. There are different standards and regulations in different countries and regions around the world. Businesses may benefit from working with a vendor that can support their PPE needs for workers in facilities around the globe. Such vendors may offer PPE products that provide the same consistent levels of protection while also complying with different regional regulatory requirements.
Safety managers should remember that industry standards and regulations are moving targets. In 2017, updates to the European standard EN 374 introduced significant adjustments to standards that had remained unchanged since 2003. These updates were necessary because the chemicals used in the workplace and chemical-resistant PPE technologies both had evolved over time.
EN 374 was a series of standards providing guidance on testing methodologies and requirements for gloves used when working with chemicals and microorganisms. The updates improved worker safety and were adopted internationally, at which point they became EN ISO 374. These kinds of updates may not happen quickly, but they are important and require close attention from safety managers.
Resources for PPE selection
Employers are responsible for accurately evaluating workplace risks and securing the right PPE for their workers, but, as previously stated, they do not have to do it alone. The most responsible PPE manufacturers offer resources to help companies through the process of building a safety program and selecting the right PPE. At their best, these programs are collaborative processes that can provide substantial value to the company and better PPE options to the workers.
There are third-party resources as well. OSHA offers guidelines and tools to help employers develop a safety program and choose the appropriate PPE, as does the European Commission.
Chemical protection is complicated and is a significant challenge, even for responsible, safety-conscious employers. The right solutions for a range of applications are available, and responsible vendors offer tools to help safety managers find PPE that best safeguards their workers. ■
Edited by Mary Page Bailey
Paul Bryce is the vice president and general manager of the Chemical Solutions strategic business unit at Ansell located in Hull, U.K. (Email: email@example.com; Website: www.ansell.com). He joined Ansell in April 2015 following the acquisition of Microgard Ltd., where he was a member of the senior management team, and has over 20 years’ experience in the PPE and safety industries. In his current role, Bryce has global responsibility for strategy and the commercial development of the Chemical Solutions portfolio and Ansell’s AlphaTec core brand for multi-hazard chemical protection.