Roundtable: How to Buy Hazmat Suits

As with any fire service purchase, when it comes to buying hazmat protective suits, you want the best suit for the money. And like other purchases, that involves more than going with the low-cost option or the option with the most bells and whistles. To help us better understand how to get the right suit for the job and keep it in good working order, we pulled in three experts from Kappler. Here’s our virtual roundtable discussion with Dennis Sanders, Vice President, Sales and Marketing; Philip Mann, Technical Director; and Miller Opolka, Technical Product manager.

HazmatNation: What do hazmat PPE buyers commonly overlook when selecting gear?

Dennis Sanders: One of the most misunderstood aspects of protective clothing is testing, whether it’s documenting a fabric’s ability to hold out certain hazards or being familiar with the testing requirements for NFPA or other standards. Testing provides baseline apples-to-apples criteria for a suit’s performance. The other thing many protective clothing users fail to appreciate is the importance of storage requirements, which can vary widely by type of garment. Storage space alone can affect an organization’s inventory needs and can make a big impact on the planning and budgeting process.

Miller Opolka: With protective clothing, users need to keep in mind additional PPE required to use the garments properly. Whether it’s boots, gloves, breathing protection or other items, rarely is a protective suit used by itself. Compatibility with other PPE is always a critical consideration. Shelf life is another thing that is important to know. Kappler does not claim a specific shelf life for most products, but that approach varies by manufacturer and is important to understand.

Philip Mann: The service aspects before and after purchase can often be as important as the product itself — how knowledgeable are the manufacturer’s people, and how quick to respond to questions about care and use. Responsiveness is a big factor that can literally carry life or death implications.

What tips can you offer to get the most performance out of a suit?

Sanders: First of all, read and follow user manual instructions. Make sure all inspections and testing are done in clean environments. Never don or doff the suit without protective matting, especially on the ground or gravel. Sock boots attached to the suit, which go inside protective boots, are very vulnerable to abrasion and puncture damage when this is not followed. And make sure all inspections and testing are done in clean environments.

Opolka: Train in the garment, or a less expensive training version of the suit, to understand the limitations on mobility, visibility and other factors. Also, be sure to inspect any garment before use to confirm correct size and condition. And always use the buddy system to don and doff, which is especially critical to prevent cross-contamination issues.

Mann: Going back to Dennis’s comment, read and understand user instructions — those are developed for a reason, to help ensure user safety. And always follow best practices for whatever suit or hazard scenario is involved, from proper donning all the way through to decontamination and safe doffing procedures.

What factors go into the single-use vs. reusable purchase decision?

Mann: In today’s world, the term “single-use” doesn’t apply much to chemical protective garments because any suit that is contaminated should be disposed of following established protocols. It’s interesting that there is a specific NFPA apparel standard, NFPA 1999, that addresses emergency medical services and defines the garment as single-use. Those garments are specifically designed for blood, viral and other biohazards, with the idea that even potential exposure to viral and bacterial hazards makes reusing a garment too risky. Kappler makes two NFPA 1999 garments in the ProVent Plus and Lantex lines. These might be relevant to those who work in emergency response involving potential biohazard exposure, but for overall chemical protection work single-use doesn’t really come into play.

Sanders: I agree, the term “single-use” is actually sort of an obsolete concept as it relates to hazmat work. Besides those unique biohazard garments, all Kappler suits are considered multi-use, single-exposure. This is a concept Kappler actually pioneered back in the 1980s. It is based on the idea that a suit that has not been exposed to hazardous materials and not damaged in any way, is OK to wear again with proper cleaning for hygiene purposes. The term “reusable” is risky because it carries the connotation that a suit that has been contaminated can be cleaned and made safe for re-use. The fact is there is no way to determine if a chemical hazard has permeated into the fabric itself. The only true safe practice is to properly dispose of a contaminated suit. There are always judgment calls based on the exact exposure scenario depending on the exact hazard. In certain industrial applications, this may be possible, but for hazmat response there are too many unknowns to risk reusing a suit that may, in fact, be harming the user from the inside of the garment.

Opolka: To the point about industrial situations, there are applications where a known chemical can be safely removed from a suit with proper laundering capabilities intended for contaminated PPE. In that case, the cost per garment and how many laundry cycles it can withstand without degradation become factors in the purchase decision.

What should buyers pay the most attention to when evaluating suit testing results?

Sanders: Whole suit testing typically only applies to certain NFPA standards where multiple aspects of garment performance are subjected to standardized protocols, and must meet certain requirements ranging from pass or fail or to specific quantifiable results. Fabric testing, on the other hand, applies to virtually any protective garment material, and provides a baseline indicator for a suit’s ability to protect against a certain hazard for a specific amount of time. Understanding the difference in these types of testing, and how to evaluate the results, is important for anyone specifying or using protective clothing.

Opolka: For fabric testing, be sure and understand the difference between permeation and penetration testing. Both are used and can be appropriate for a given situation or for meeting a specific standard, but it’s easy to get the two confused. With permeation data, unless specified differently, chemicals are tested at the highest concentration levels of a chemical at room temperature. Results are typically reported as breakthrough time in minutes, with 480-minute holdout the max test period per appropriate ASTM test methods. The holdout time is relevant as it relates to the expected time of exposure for a given hazard scenario. Penetration testing is just as valid for appropriate standards and applications. Products such as Kappler’s DuraChem 200, are a good examples of where penetration testing is the preferred method because it is consistent with the job functions that garment is designed for.

Mann: I would also add that the testing methods used by different suit manufacturers are the same, based on standardized test methods and reporting data that allow apples-to-apples comparison between companies. It is also important to verify that published data is based on documented third-party testing to ensure objectivity.

Is storage life an issue for higher-level protection hazmat suits?

Sanders: Kappler has determined there is no specific storage life for its chemical protection products as long as they have been properly stored and have not been contaminated or damaged. It is up the user to have good protocols to ensure that any suit, especially an older one, is safe to use based on careful inspection, good use records and other factors.

Opolka: It’s helpful that many higher-protection garments come individually packaged for ease of storage and accessibility. This makes it easier to identify suits that have not been used regardless of age. However, it’s important to remember that gas-tight suits should always be pressure-tested on receipt, and then periodically on a documented re-test schedule, so even if unused they don’t always get placed back into the original packaging.

Mann: I would echo the comments about proper storage and regular, documented pressure testing — those are critical aspects much more-so than shelf-life.

How can buyers evaluate a suit’s performance related to dexterity and comfort for the wearer?

Sanders: Each user’s application and situation is different and the only way to determine those things is by evaluating a sample of the garment itself. In Kappler’s case, customers can work with our regional managers to request a suit for evaluation to facilitate that process. Fabric and seam samples can also be used to help determine the impact of a certain fabric on user dexterity, which definitely differs based on the level of protection a fabric and garment offer.

Opolka:

I agree, they need to evaluate a real sample. Comfort is a relative term since non-breathable, chemically-protective garments and fabrics represent the bulk of hazmat apparel. Certain garments, such as DuraChem 200 and the biohazard garments mentioned earlier, are made of breathable protective fabrics, which certainly improves the comfort factor.

What questions should buyers be asking themselves before deciding on the levels of protection they need in suits?

Mann: Always perform a hazard assessment — what are the hazards they expect to encounter, what is the specific scenario in terms of level of exposure and length of time exposed? Kappler offers a free app called HazMatch that provides an easy way to do this, and simultaneously save the results to meet the OSHA hazard assessment requirements.

Opolka: Also, consider whether you’re purchasing for a specific task or application, or if the garment should be able to be used in a wide range of scenarios. Not only does this aspect of assessment help ensure a safe garment choice, it also helps to select the most cost-effective solution for the intended use without paying for more protection than needed.

What’s the best way to assess how much money a team or department should budget for hazmat suits?

Sanders: One critical aspect is the frequency of events that require hazmat suits vs. other needs and requirements of the team. And going back to the assessment aspect, think about the numbers of high-level, gas-tight hazmat suits versus less protective garments that are appropriate for less demanding activities or for decon teams and so forth. All this falls into making projections necessary to establish a realistic protective apparel budget.

Opolka: That analysis could include the average number of calls per year, understanding and cataloging potential hazards within a department’s service area. Is there a yearly budget for purchasing or do they rely on grants, and similar factors?

Mann: It should also be based on historical reviews of previous use levels — that always provides a good baseline for considering the other factors mentioned.


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