Cleanup of potentially hazardous materials and flammable contaminants can sometimes be a part of an electrical job. When workers arrive on a scene, they cannot always be sure of the exposures or contaminants they will face. In electrical work, it could be oil that contains a small number of PCBs. This oil, and other contaminants, is flammable and can affect the flame-resistant properties of garments until it is washed from the garments. Working around flammable contaminants, as well as flame and thermal hazards like arc flash potentials and flash fire potentials, often requires a PPE safety system that can be difficult to balance. Some workers may need chemical protection, flame protection or both. Secondary protection used in such circumstances, like disposable garments, can create a fast and effective way to decontaminate and clean a scene – by removal and disposal – without soiling or degrading the primary protection underneath. Because of this, disposables often are useful over daily wear. Many workers and managers assume that a chem suit is a chem suit and use the common polyester/polyethylene suits to cover their arc-rated/flame-resistant (AR/FR) gear. This can be a disaster if one of the suits ignites, melts and continues to burn, or if part of the suit becomes molten and melts onto a worker’s hands or face.
In the AR/FR PPE industry, however, disposable garments are few and far between, and the standards aren’t quite in place to help make the distinction between garments that are truly flame resistant in specific hazards versus marketing. The lightweight, thin materials typically can’t pass some of the harsh requirements set forth for garments to be used as primary materials. And even though most are not intended for primary protection, there are limited standards to guide manufacturers on appropriate tests and claims for these types of products. This is especially true for those needing multihazard protection in the outermost disposable garment. There are disposable garments on the market that boast protection from a variety of hazards, like blood-borne pathogens, dry particulates and chemicals. When flame resistance comes into play, there are even fewer options on the market.
How Far Have We Come?
Disposables have come a long way in the past few years, but we are still lacking in standards on the AR/FR side. Initially, polyester spunlace disposable garments were used for chemical protection, and they revolutionized the industry in providing secondary, fast protection that could be doffed and disposed of without concern of contamination of primary clothing; these products add extra protection to the worker at a low cost. Later, coated and sealed-seam garments on the chemical protection side were made to withstand even higher-level exposures, including chemical warfare, an unlikely scenario in the workplace. Disposables for chemical protection worked well for chemical hazards, but they were not adequate or intended for the risks from flash fires or electric arcs. Flame resistance of disposable garments still hadn’t been adequately addressed from a standards perspective, and there were misunderstandings in the market regarding FR PPE, including PPE intended to be disposable.