Hazards Demand Proper Protection

Gloves are the first line of defense for many necessary tasks in our hazardous world.

With new hazards emerging weekly, ensuring safer, more secure environments is more challenging than ever before. The importance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is constantly being brought to the forefront by natural disasters, such as wildfires, flooding in America’s heartland, tornados, and hurricanes; as well as health concerns about pathogenic microorganisms, such as MRSA and H5N1 virus (avian flu).

Protecting consumers’ and workers’ hands from contaminants is a key aspect of any cleanup or response effort. There are specific protective features to consider, depending on the situation and materials encountered.

Naturally Occurring Disasters
It is evident that cleanup from flooding and other natural disasters will be an ongoing issue. In the recent flooding, many chemical companies along the Mississippi were flooded. Debris from municipal sewage is always a big concern when large areas are flooded, and mold in flooded homes and businesses can become a serious health problem. Any remediation effort requires that workers wear proper protective masks, gloves, and garments.

Often, the same type of gloves may be used for the administration of medical relief, food services, remediation, and reconstruction efforts. For example, disposable natural rubber latex (NRL), nitrile, or even vinyl gloves may be suitable for protecting all workers. However, it is always a good idea to seek the most qualified products with the highest level of protection required for each task, whether it be food service, first aid administration, rescue, recovery, demolition, or reconstruction.

For tasks such as these, the National Fire Protection Association has assembled technical committees from all aspects of emergency medical operations, as well as hazardous materials incidents, to devise standards designed to protect rescuers (both the first responder and the first receiver). Gloves that are NFPA 1999 Certified for emergency medical services must pass a series of applicable tests in an independent, third-party certification laboratory. They must provide a specific level of protection or performance level for each key criterion, such as fit, dexterity, protection from viral penetration, protein levels, rubber properties, and puncture resistance.

As floodwaters recede, cleanup efforts change. The clearing of debris requires a much different set of protective gear: general purpose, heavy-duty work gloves and cut-resistant gloves with excellent abrasion resistance and a long usable life.

It is important to remember that no glove offers protection from a moving or serrated blade. However, for conditions that may result from the long use of items such as chainsaws, where repetitive motion injuries may occur, a vibration-dampening glove can lessen the impact of such injuries. Manufacturers also offer lightly coated, thinner, better-fitting gloves that provide abrasion resistance and cut resistance for demanding jobs, such as construction.

Thinner gloves allow the worker to do many tasks for which he previously took the gloves off to gain dexterity. They encourage workers to wear them longer and for more tasks so that injuries are reduced and, in many cases, eliminated.

MRSA: Today’s Threatening Super-Bug
Natural disasters are one threat. New super-bugs are another. Although bird flu has not mutated in a form contagious in human beings, a mutated form of the common bacterium Staph is spreading throughout the United States: Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).

Years of prescribing and over-prescribing penicillin-based antibiotics have resulted in mutation of Staph into a virulent form that resists common antibiotics and causes severe, sometimes disfiguring, skin infections that can spread to other body systems and may cause fatal infections. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated MRSA will cause more deaths than AIDS this year.One of the problems with an organism such as MRSA is that it is endemic. Common Staph lives on the skin or in the noses of 25 to 30 percent of the population and exists in people who are not sick.

Although not generally categorized as a pandemic, MRSA is worldwide, and the problem is growing. Reporting is not mandatory, and public health figures show that it is drastically under-reported. Public health agencies agree the criteria for MRSA reporting are too stringent. Many hospitals now screen patients for MRSA upon admittance. The number of cases they are seeing is cause for major concern.

Hospital-acquired MRSA (HA-MRSA) has been a problem in hospitals and nursing homes for years. Community-acquired MRSA has now surfaced and is in the headlines every day as whole school systems shut down to disinfect and decontaminate when infections occur.

Who is at risk? Clusters of MRSA outbreaks have been reported among athletes, military recruits, children, and certain ethnic groups. Law enforcement personnel who deal with homeless people, illegal aliens, and prison inmates are at risk of acquiring MRSA. Many professional sports teams have had problems with MRSA, which has sidelined players.

What does MRSA look like? MRSA infections are commonly mistaken for spider bites or a boil or pimple. MRSA spreads and can be disfiguring; stopping it can require surgery or even amputation. Systemic involvement can result in death. MRSA can penetrate through a scrape, pimple, or sore. Most MRSA is spread on hands to different surfaces.

How do we prevent MRSA infection? Proper hand washing is the most important step in preventing transmission and infection by MRSA. You should never share personal items, such as towels and razors, or touch anyone’s bandages or wounds. Towels and gym clothes should be washed in hot water and dried in hot dryers, not air dried. Surfaces should be wiped down with alcohol- based disinfectants that are known to kill MRSA. Hand sanitizers that are alcohol-based and proven to kill MRSA should be used to prevent transmission and infection.

Gloves that provide protection from bloodborne pathogens are an integral part of a protection ensemble for contact with MRSA, whether treating patients or cleaning up facilities. They should not, however, be the sole item of PPE chosen for such virulent pathogens. An item such as a disposable glove will protect the wearer from exposure of the hands to MRSA bacteria. However, MRSA can contaminate the outer surface of any glove and be transmitted to other surfaces. The wearer can wipe the glove surface with hand sanitizers that kill MRSA to prevent transmission. It is important to be certain that the hand sanitizer has been proven to kill MRSA and will not degrade the glove or compromise its barrier efficacy.

Does anything treat MRSA? This Super- Bug is very difficult to kill and is spreading. Some antibiotics, such as Vancomycin, are effective for treating MRSA, but common penicillin-based antibiotics are not effective. Persons who suspect they have MRSA should contact their doctors as soon as possible. Earlier diagnosis is the key to successful treatment.

First Defense with PPE
Writing professional standards designed to protect workers and communities from exposure to chemical and biological agents is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. It is comforting to know that certain standards-writing organizations have had the foresight to address many of these PPE issues before they arise. NFPA 1999 is an example. NFPA 1999 even covers protection from new hazards, such as MRSA and avian influenza hazards.

NFPA 1999 Standard on Protective Clothing for Emergency Medical Operations originally was written to address protection of first responders, such as firefighters and emergency medical personnel, from exposure to bloodborne pathogens. All PPE covered in the standard was required to provide the minimal level of protection from bloodborne pathogens; this included gloves, garments, faceshields or masks, eye protection, and mouthpieces or other ventilation devices.

In order to comply with NFPA 1999, protective items including gloves must pass ASTM F1671, Standard Test Method for Resistance of Materials Used in Protective Clothing to Penetration by Blood-Borne Pathogens Using Phi-X174 Bacteriophage Penetration as a Test System. (At only 27 nanometers in size and in fact much smaller than anthrax, MRSA bacteria, SARS, HIV, H5N1 avian influenza, and even Hepatitis B Virus, Bacteriophage Phi-X174 is the model viral particle utilized for testing whether bloodborne pathogens will penetrate PPE because of its size and the fact that it is a nonpathogenic viral entity.)

PPE in the Era of Nanotechnology
An interesting aspect of using the ASTM F1671 Bacteriophage Phi-X174 test model is that passing it also means passing the test for penetration of a nanoparticle. With the billion- dollar nanotechnology market developing quickly worldwide and nanotechnology being the basis for many 21st-century technological advances, there has been much concern about these microscopic-sized particles and the proper PPE for both the inhalation route and the dermal route.

Because the Bacteriophage Phi-X174 model virus is considered a nanoparticle, NFPA 1999 Certified products provide protection from nanoparticles.

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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