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Chemical Protection Suits:  Safeguarding Workers in Hazardous Environments

Most workers in the United States have no idea just how many toxic chemicals there are in the workplace. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than 32 million workers in the country are exposed to 650,000 hazardous chemicals in more than three million workplaces each year. And hundreds of new chemical products are introduced yearly, each with its own particular health and physical dangers. These hazards can pose significant risks to the health and safety of all the people in the workplace. OSHA created the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to help employers and staff protect themselves from chemical hazards and reduce the number of chemical-related injuries and illnesses.

The HCS provides workers exposed to harmful chemicals with the identities and hazards of those materials, as well as the proper protective measures. It is based on the idea that, as the ones working with these substances, the workers have the right to know about them. These includes developing and maintaining an written hazard communications program for the workplace, labeling of chemical containers in the workplace, preparation and distribution of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and a list of all hazardous chemicals present to all employees; and the development and implementation of training programs for chemical information and protective measures. One protective measure for chemical hazard protection is utilizing Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE.

Personal protective equipment is designed to protect workers form serious injuries or illness that may come from contact with chemical, physical, mechanical, electrical and biological hazards in the workplace. In Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 1910 Subpart I, OSHA requires PPE standards to be utilized anytime hazardous materials are to be handled. Employers are mandated to conduct a hazard assessment of their workplace to determine what hazards are present that require the use of protective equipment. After assessment, they are required to provide workers with the appropriate PPE to be regularly used and maintained. Protective equipment includes tools such as face shields, safety glasses, hard hats, safety shoes and protective chemical suits.

Chemical suits are protective clothing that are designed to prevent hazardous substances such as toxic corrosive gases, liquids and solid chemicals from coming in contact with the body. They are best used for industrial, hazmat and domestic preparedness applications. These protective suits are made from chemical-resistant materials that are used to cover or isolate parts of the wearer's body from contact with toxic chemical substances. They inhibit or resist the passage of chemicals into the material by the processes of penetration, degradation or permeation. Chemical protection suits can be constructed as a single or multi-piece garment. A single-piece suit completely encloses the wearer and is known as an encapsulated suit or acid suit. They offer full body protection from hostile environments and require the use of respirators to supply air to the user. A multi-piece suit works with the user's respiratory protection equipment, an attached or detached hood, gloves and boots to guard against a specific hazard.

When choosing the right protective clothing for your workplace, a number of factors have to be considered. These factors include:

1.  

Chemical resistance of glove or garment. The clothing must resist permeation and penetration by chemicals being handled.

2.  

Specific job functions. The features and specifications of the protective suit are dependent on the nature of the job being performed. For example, a worker doing maintenance work on a pump line requires thicker gloves that are rugged and durable while a lab worker analyzing specimens requires more flexible gloves for use.

3.  

Potential for Exposure. The degree of exposure risk for a worker's individual job functions will determine the degree of personal protection required.

4.  

Duration of Exposure. The length of time that a worker spends in doing tasks that involves handling chemicals will determine the type of protective clothing to be used.

It is important for workers using protective clothing to understand that no single combination of protective equipment and clothing is capable of protection against all hazards. Protective clothing is an effective means of helping prevent injuries and illnesses that may arise from chemical handling. But protective clothing should be used together with other protective methods.  It is only one aspect of a comprehensive program for ensuring the safety and health of workers A good hazard communication program that is being observed and practiced will help increase safety and protection for workers and the facility itself.

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