Spending Less and Getting More from Your Hazmat Suit
It is imperative for hazmat teams to understand the requirements of NFPA 1994 and NFPA 1992. Doing this not only determines your safety during use, but also gives peace of mind while in the hot zone.
- By Peter A. Kirk
- Oct 01, 2011
While the unexpected is expected in the emergency services world, there are two truths:
- No two situations are the same, and
- Never take any situation lightly.
On any given day, a hazmat unit can be called into action in potentially harmful conditions, risking exposure to toxic chemicals, poisonous gases, and deadly biological agents. As such, hazmat professionals rely on their hazmat suits to protect them so they can perform confidently and without worrying about coming into contact with these dangerous elements. Because no two situations are the same, it is crucial to know exactly what the capabilities of a suit's protection are.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) concerns itself with the unexpected and has created hazmat suit standards so that those who use the products know exactly how different ones are designed to keep them safe in the hot zone. NFPA is the leading authority on fire protection and safety, and being certified to its standards is considered the pinnacle of hazmat safety. Although NFPA standards exist for benefit of the users, they are often used by manufacturers for development of hazmat suits, as well. There are several different categories of hazmat suits -– for example, Level A for maximum respiratory and skin protection and Level B for maximum respiratory and lesser skin protection –- which correspond with these standards, bringing options to the user.
Because not all situations require extreme protection against the unknown, Level B suits can offer a lower-cost option for use in scenarios with known hazards. Departments can save money by avoiding use of a significantly more expensive Level A suit when it's not needed. In the case of Level B protective equipment, a use should look for two NFPA standards: NFPA 1994 Class 2 (Protective Ensembles for First Responders to CBRN Terrorism Incidents) and NFPA 1992 (Liquid Splash-Protective Clothing for Hazardous Materials Emergencies). These standards ensure a user will be protected in a wide range of situations.
In today's economy, cutting back on expenses and settling for less is commonplace, but it has no place in the emergency services industry. Just because a Level B suit can be selected to save money does not mean users must compromise on the level of necessary protection. A Level B suit that is dual-certified to NFPA 1994 Class 2 and NFPA 1992 is the best option for the best price and offers an enhanced level of protection for many different scenarios.
Elements of 1994 and 1992
NFPA standards can be traced back to the late 19th Century with the development of automatic sprinklers. According to NFPA, when automatic sprinklers were first introduced, they worked well as extinguishing devices when properly installed. However, installation methods and practices varied widely, hampering their reliability. The solution was to create a centralized set of universal rules for sprinkler installation so that civilians and firefighters were safe, no matter the situation.
NFPA standards represent the highest protection for hazmat suits because of the strict requirements products must follow to become compliant. When a hazmat suit is certified to one of the many NFPA standards, this means it has gone through hundreds of performance tests following a set of guidelines that have been developed from more than a century of research and experience in the field.
Not all hazmat suits on the market are created to NFPA standards. But like the poorly installed automatic sprinklers, who would want to rely on something that might not be installed properly -- or, in the suit's case, one that might not provide needed protection in the most dangerous scenarios?
When performing in the hot zone, it is important to be focused on the mission at hand, not the suit's protection level. NFPA 1992 is one of the less-utilized standards because many hazmat teams concern themselves with vapor-capable protection when responding to spills. However, it is beneficial to look for certified NFPA 1992 protection if your department is concerned with liquid chemical exposure.
NFPA 1992 establishes the requirement for chemical liquid splash protection when no chemical vapor hazards exist. To be certified to it, the suit goes through rigorous tests to ascertain whether it will stay intact and work properly when put in action. The suit material and seams are tested for chemical permeation against seven different chemicals and pass only if the rate of permeation does not exceed the maximum allowable amount within an hour.
NFPA 1992 is not limited to hazmat suits; the same tests are performed to ensure gloves and footwear will protect from liquid splash exposure. Gloves and footwear are also tested for impact and compression resistance, putting them through the same puncture, abrasion, and cold weather tests. On top of that, footwear is also tested for bending resistance and slip resistance.
NFPA 1992 is designed to protect the user against liquid chemical splash but does not ensure protection from gaseous chemicals; this can be observed through its typical configuration, which is an open-faced coverall having a loose-fitting bungee style interface to the SCBA mask and bottle on the back. While this design provides essential protection against liquid splashes, the user is vulnerable to airborne hazards if the suit is certified to NFPA 1992 only.
The NFPA 1994 standard defines design, testing, and performance requirements for protective garments used by first responders in a terrorist incident involving chemical/biological dangers. There were originally four classes of protection defined with this standard, but in the most recent edition (2007), Class 1 was removed and incorporated into the NFPA 1991 standard (Vapor Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies). As a result, Class 2 became the highest level of protection within the NFPA 1994 standard.
A suit that is certified to the NFPA 1994 Class 2 standard is used when the agent or threat has been identified and the actual release has subsided. Like NFPA 1992 ensembles, NFPA 1994 Class 2 suits protect responders from direct contact with liquid chemicals. However, unlike NFPA 1992 ensembles, a suit certified to NFPA 1994 is tested for protection against gaseous chemicals. NFPA 1994 protective garments are similar in configuration to NFPA 1992, but NFPA 1994 Class 2 has the option to be configured as a fully-encapsulated suit with the SCBA and mask on the inside of the hood. In this way, 1994 Class 2 is similar to the design of NFPA 1991-configured suits.
When a suit is certified to both NFPA standards, it enhances the suit's usefulness because it is acceptable in more situations and will offer more protection than ones that only offer a single certification, not to mention requiring less storage space, logistics, and training associated with the management of two separate products.
As can be seen by the test requirements, the NFPA 1994 Class 2 and NFPA 1992 standards are very similar in nature. Both ensure users will be protected from chemical contact and address physical properties of the materials, and they are used in similar situations. However, it has been a common practice for Level B hazmat suits to feature only the liquid splash protection offered by NFPA 1992 or even no certification at all. This leaves a severe gap in the protection level of the suit: high-level skin protection, mostly due to the decision to save a few dollars.
Many hazmat professionals who inappropriately use these suits create a false sense of security by applying tape to critical areas for sealing mask-suit and glove-suit interfaces. Users commonly wrap duct tape around them to block obvious chemical passageways. This goes against the standardized protection that NFPA stands for.
Thankfully, there are now some suits on the market that offer certification to both standards. This offers a suit to use in situations that do not require a Level A suit, but also one that provides the liquid splash and gas chemical protection. These suits take those two universal truths very seriously and make sure users are protected no matter what. The suits that offer dual certification feature a tightly sealed mask interface using a gasket to connect the mask to the hood. The rim of the mask fits flush against a rubber lining that is built into the suit's hood, stopping gases from flowing into the suit. Not only does this improve the suit's ability to protect the user, but also it gives the user more visibility and a greater range of motion.
No two situations are the same. Never approach a situation lightly. These two universal truths have shaped the capabilities of hazmat teams and the engineering of hazmat technology. NFPA has taken this mantra and created standards so emergency personnel do not need to concern themselves with anything other than the task at hand.
The extensive tests performed to receive certification to NFPA standards ensure hazmat professionals' protection is not being taken lightly. And although no two situations are the same, using equipment certified to NFPA standards enables standardized use throughout the hazmat industry.
With that being said, it is imperative for hazmat teams to understand the requirements of these standards. Doing this not only determines safety during use, but also gives peace of mind while in the hot zone because the suit's capabilities and protection levels are aligned through training in advance of any response.