The Right PPE for Disaster Responders

Cut resistance and comfort are especially important for workers who wear protective gloves for extended periods of time.

IN recent years, we Americans have experienced more than our share of natural and man-made disasters. From the six major hurricanes that struck Florida during the past two years to oil spills, tornadoes, and the devastating acts of terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, and the Oklahoma City bombing, first responders and cleanup personnel have been required to work with a variety of catastrophic situations and related hazards.

Depending upon the type of disaster, emergency workers and others usually need a range of personal protective equipment, including hand protection and apparel, to keep them safe from any number of threats. These include bacteria and other biohazards, chemicals, debris, contaminated water, mildew, and mold. Following Hurricane Katrina, for example, workers needed protection from hazards such as contaminated water, debris, mold, and bacteria. After 9/11, workers were faced with millions of tons of debris and smoldering materials.

In the wake of most major disasters, workers are likely to become involved in several stages of rescue and cleanup:

* Assessment. This stage probably will involve federal, state, and local authorities and emergency personnel who will evaluate the situation, determine the extent of the damage, and identify next steps.
* Search and rescue. Depending upon the magnitude of the catastrophe, this stage may include thousands of emergency personnel and officials who will locate victims and conduct rescue operations as appropriate. In New Orleans, more than 2,000 people were involved in search and rescue efforts in the days after the hurricane in September 2005.
* Demolition and general cleanup. This stage will include removing debris and demolishing and removing structures that suffered severe damage. Debris is likely to include wood, metal, glass, concrete, and plastics. If flooding is involved, this stage may include mold remediation and chemical cleanup. In New Orleans, emergency workers and volunteers had to deal with everything from oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, and antifreeze leaking from vehicles to fertilizers, pesticides, and cleaning agents that residents and businesses had stored in their buildings. Mold remediation was a major challenge and probably will continue to be for several years.
* Reconstruction. Once the cleanup is under way, workers will begin rebuilding homes and other buildings, roadways, bridges, etc. In some areas (New Orleans is one example), reconstruction may take years.

PPE to Match the Task
The personal protective equipment needed for disaster situations will vary according to the type of catastrophe and the extent of the destruction. Following Hurricane Katrina, federal officials stressed that all rescue workers wear protective clothing and gloves before entering any flooded areas.

Below are general glove and apparel guidelines for a range of situations, substances, and materials. These recommendations are examples of materials/products that would be appropriate for the tasks listed, although the recommendations are neither exclusive nor all-inclusive. Workers probably will want to wear comfortable apparel with long sleeves and full-length pants under the protective PVC garments recommended. Comfort is especially important, because work schedules are likely to be long and hard.

Purpose: First Response and Assessment, Emergency Rescue
(Dry conditions)

Tasks involved: Medical assistance, first aid
Hazards: Bacteria, viruses, blood pathogens, other biohazards
Gloves recommended: Lightly powdered disposable nitrile, powder-free disposable nitrile, latex-free polychloroprene exam, powdered latex smooth finish exam, powder-free latex textured finish exam
Clothing recommended: Vinyl; PVC heavy-duty aprons, suits, coveralls, overalls, and jackets

Purpose: First Response for Hurricanes and Floods

Tasks involved: Evaluating damage and locating casualties under wet conditions and in debris that may be submerged
Hazards: May be uncertain; may include bacteria, viruses, other biohazards, hazardous chemicals, materials that cut and/or puncture
Gloves recommended: Heavy-duty nitrile- or neoprene-coated fabric (preferably Kevlar® blends), neoprene with a mineral-filled outer layer
Clothing recommended: Vinyl; PVC heavy-duty aprons, suits, coveralls, overalls, and jackets

Purpose: Recovery of Human and Animal Remains

Tasks involved: Recovery of deceased victims, removal of animal carcasses
Hazards: Bacteria (such as E. coli), viruses, blood pathogens, other biohazards
Gloves recommended: Nitrile, nitrile with a cut-resistant Kevlar lining and coated palm
Clothing recommended: Vinyl; PVC heavy-duty aprons, suits, coveralls, overalls, and jackets

Purpose: Hazardous Materials Cleanup

Tasks involved: Chemical cleanup, human waste removal, mildew and mold remediation, sludge removal
Hazards: Chemicals, bacteria, other biohazards, mold, mildew
Gloves recommended: Flat-film, nitrile, neoprene
Clothing recommended: Polyester CPC suits, overalls, coveralls

Purpose: Debris Cleanup (Dry)

Tasks involved: Handling and removing wood, glass, metal, and concrete in dry environments
Hazards: Sharp edges, materials that cause cuts, abrasions, and punctures
Gloves recommended: Nitrile, foam nitrile-coated, rubber-coated
Clothing recommended: Hycar heavy-duty aprons, overalls, and coveralls; denim

Purpose: Debris Cleanup (Wet)

Tasks involved: Handling and removing wood, glass, metal and concrete in wet environments
Hazards: Sharp edges, materials that cause cuts, abrasions, and punctures, contaminated water
Gloves recommended: Nitrile, rubber-coated with a Kevlar lining, neoprene-coated
Clothing recommended: PVC jackets, suits, and overalls

Purpose: Demolition

Tasks involved: Tearing down and removing existing structures
Hazards: Sharp edges, materials that cause cuts, abrasions, and punctures
Gloves recommended: Nitrile-coated, foam nitrile-coated, rubber-coated with a Kevlar lining, neoprene-coated
Clothing recommended: Hycar heavy-duty aprons, overalls, and coveralls; denim

Purpose: Rebuilding and Construction

Tasks involved: Renovating structures, materials handling, new construction
Hazards: Sharp edges, objects, and materials that cause cuts, abrasions, and punctures
Gloves recommended: Nitrile-coated, foam nitrile-coated with Kevlar lining, rubber-coated
Clothing recommended: Hycar heavy-duty aprons, overalls, coveralls; denim

Purpose: Providing Food and Supplies

Tasks involved: Food preparation and service
Hazards: Bacteria (such as E. coli), oils, and contaminants that may be on the hands or food
Gloves recommended: Powdered latex exam, powder-free latex exam, disposable latex, nitrile-coated
Clothing recommended: Vinyl aprons for medium/heavy-duty splash protection

In most instances, nitrile is an acceptable material for gloves used in a variety of disaster-related applications because it is strong and provides superior chemical resistance. Choosing nitrile gloves with a Kevlar lining increases the gloves' cut resistance and comfort, which is especially important for workers wearing hand protection products for extended periods of time. Neoprene is also very resistant to chemicals such as fertilizers, petrochemicals, and pesticides and protects against strong cleaning agents, including concentrated bleach.

Any chemical-resistant glove or clothing product may be used to protect workers against most chemicals and other pollutants found in floodwaters, including E. coli. Chemical-resistant gloves also will keep other substances that may be found in floodwaters, such as asbestos, off the hands. Gloves that are used to handle asbestos should be disposed of immediately and/or thoroughly washed before the substance dries and is released into the air.

Emergency personnel and others responding to a disaster situation should always be prepared for the worst--especially during the early assessment and search and rescue stages. Because workers are unlikely to know what threats they may face, they should be prepared by wearing PPE that will provide them the highest level of protection.

Getting Prepared
No one can predict when or where a disaster might occur. Emergency organizations and first responders in major metropolitan areas and any location that is geographically susceptible to storms such as hurricanes should be prepared by keeping a supply of the appropriate PPE products on hand and training personnel on their use.

After the storm strikes or another disaster occurs, the real challenge is often coordinating, forecasting, and arranging the logistics for PPE products to meet the sudden and unexpected demand. In a disaster zone, emergency managers must have the hand protection and safety apparel products there and must have the logistics in place to meet workers' needs.

In most situations, especially during the assessment and search and rescue stages, workers probably will use economical, disposable products that they will replace at short intervals. Natural rubber latex should be discarded when the gloves swell and become soft. Vinyl or PVC gloves should be changed as soon as they begin to shrink and become hard.

Workers should be educated about the importance of safety procedures that can save lives, such as immediately employing clean soap and water to cleanse any skin that is exposed to contaminated water. Anyone with open wounds that are exposed to dirty water should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

This article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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