The iconic yellow suit is only one component in providing complete safety for the wearer.

Hazmat Protection from Head to Toe

True hazmat gear must provide protection from head to toe.

From health care workers fighting Ebola to the main characters in "Breaking Bad," the typical yellow hazmat suit has become a familiar media image portraying dangerous work environments. Primitive versions of hazmat suits date back to the 14th century as protection against the bubonic plague. Unfortunately, those suits may have spread more disease than protected people in those days.

The Ebola crisis has drawn attention to not only the construction of hazmat protection, but also the proper ways to put it on and take it off, decontaminate it, and dispose of it properly--whether it is for Ebola or any other hazardous event. As a result, many manufacturers of hazmat protective gear have reported an increase in sales to consumers and businesses alike. According to a report on CNBC, Amazon experienced a significant increase in full-body suits and masks during this period.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines a hazmat suit as "an overall garment worn to protect people from hazardous materials or substances, including chemicals, biological agents, or radioactive materials." Hazmat protection is rated from Level A to Level D (see the sidebar and chart). At the highest Level A, the worker is essentially sealed in a gas-tight, vapor-tight, and splash-resistant suit with a positive-pressure, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and chemical-resistant inner and outer gloves.

But there is more to hazardous material protection than suits. All levels of protection call for chemical-resistant footwear, preferably boots with a safety toe and puncture-resistant midsole. However, protective boots and shoes are sometimes an overlooked component for worker safety. Improper hazmat footwear can allow toxic materials to penetrate, puncture, or cause a worker to slip and possibly damage his suit. Just as precautions need to be taken to prevent the cutting or puncturing of sealed hazmat suits, the same applies to hazmat footwear to maintain a protective barrier. The wrong type of footwear in a hazardous setting can prevent proper decontamination and carry dangerous materials from one environment to another.

The National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing and Equipment develops standards to test and certify emergency protective apparel. The NFPA 1991 Standard on Vapor-Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies (2005 edition) requires testing footwear resistance to 21 different chemical classes. It also includes requirements for puncture and tear resistance, temperature performance, slip resistance, abrasion resistance, and flex fatigue of footwear materials. In addition, it covers optional protection for chemical and biological agents, which must be clearly indicated on product labels.

NFPA 1994 Standard on Protective Ensembles for First Responders to CBRN Terrorism Incidents addresses chemical and biological terrorism incidents at three different threat levels. To learn more about these standards, visit the NFPA web site at www.NFPA.org.

With greater recognition of terrorist threats using chemical warfare or biological weapons, NFPA 1991 provides permeation resistance testing for primary suit, gloves, and footwear materials against chemical warfare agents Sarin (GB) and Sulfur Mustard (HD).

What to Look For in Proper Hazmat Footwear Protection
Although comfort is not an NFPA-regulated requirement, it is essential for safety. Hazmat suits are often uncomfortable, especially considering that the wearer is sealed in a suit. Hazmat workers typically are on their feet for long periods of time. If their footwear is not comfortable, they are more likely to wear a boot that is comfortable but not designed to maintain a seal of protection. Plus, uncomfortable footwear hinders productivity and can cause fatigue.

Hazmat footwear should be designed to accommodate the extra bulk of an encapsulated suit so they fit comfortably. Hazmat workers must wear gloves, so a design that enables boots to be put on and taken off easily is preferable. Other design factors to increase comfort are ensuring the hazmat boot is flexible from foot bed comfort to ankle support.

NFPA regulations requires all approved hazmat footwear to have safety toes for impact and compression resistance. NFPA also requires a protective midsole for puncture resistance. This is especially important for hazmat environments to prevent sharp objects from piercing the sole.

During an emergency spill cleanup, daily work with chemicals, or hazardous conditions, chemical resistance is essential for hazmat. To protect against liquid hazardous chemicals, boots must be made of neoprene, PVC, butyl rubber, or other chemical-resistant material. It is also important for footwear to have a smooth surface for easy cleaning and decontamination.

When Should Chemical-Resistant Hazmat Footwear Be Replaced?

Hazmat footwear should be inspected regularly and replaced if it shows signs of wear that may weaken its ability to provide protection:

  • Discoloring, swelling, breaks, cracks, holes, or other surface degradations such as tears should be observed.
  • Worn soles or treads can reduce slip resistance (traction).
  • Metal or other items embedded in the soles should be observed for potential breakthrough and could create an electrical hazard.

When it comes to hazmat protection, the iconic yellow suit is only one component in providing complete safety for emergency responders, health care workers, and military personnel. True hazmat gear must provide protection from head to toe.

Four Levels of Hazmat Protection

  • Level A is the highest level of protection to protect the skin, eyes, and respiratory system in the most dangerous situations. If there is a possible threat to life and health from incidents such as cleanup from a chemical spill, Level A protection is required. Level A hazmat gear protects against vapors, gases, mists, and splashes, so it must be gas-tight, vapor-tight, and splash resistant to offer protection against dangerous chemicals or other materials. Level A hazmat suits require a gas-tight suit, positive-pressure SCBA, chemical-resistant inner and outer gloves, and chemical-resistant boots with steel toe and midsole.
  • Level B is the second-highest level of protection. It provides protection against hazardous chemical splashes but does not provide protection against vapor or gases. Level B protection requires SCBA or positive-pressure supplied air respirator with an escape SCBA. In addition, it includes chemical-resistant clothing, gloves, and boots with a steel toe and midsole.
  • Level C is for protection against known hazardous chemicals and airborne substances, but not chemical emergency situations or potentially oxygen-deficient environments. Level C requires similar garments to Level B. Instead of an SCBA, an air-purifying respirator is sufficient. Level C equipment also includes a hard hat and disposable, chemical-resistant outer boots.
  • Level D offers the lowest level or protection, and it is typically worn when there is no danger to workers from chemical exposure. It includes a pair of coveralls and chemical-resistant footwear with steel toe shoes and midsole.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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