Taken to the Limit: Protective Clothing in the Harshest Environments

A glimpse into three very different, but equally unforgiving, work environments finds protective clothing serving as the last barrier between workers and life-threatening hazards.

By Sandy Smith

What does a Ford Motor Co. casting plant, an Air Force base in Alaska and laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have in common?

Two words: protective clothing.

For many workers, protective clothing offers a defense from hazards ranging from nuisance dust to chemical splash and from sharp edges to burns. But for some workers, like those found at Ford's Cleveland Casting Plant, Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and the Level Four laboratories at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, protective clothing is what stands between them and potentially life-threatening hazards.

Although the seriousness with which they approach protective clothing is similar in all three cases, the way safety professionals and supervisors administer the three programs is very different.

Ford Fires Up Protection

Imagine working in a facility where the process used to create your product heats metal to a temperature of 3,000 F, where just the intensity of light given off by that product can cause eye injuries, and where a drop of the product on your shoe can burn a hole through your foot.

Randy Dougall doesn't imagine it. He works there as the site safety coordinator for the Cleveland Casting Plant and three other plants in the Ford Motor Co. complex in Brook Park, Ohio.

"You walk into this environment and you're immediately concerned about your own safety. It's quite amazing," Dougall says of the melt operations at the casting plant, where the iron for engine blocks, cylinder heads and bearing caps is melted and poured.

The ambient temperature in the area can go as high as 100 F, even higher near the metal pours. Heat stress can be a concern for maintenance workers as well as those responsible for those attending to the pouring spouts on the cupolas where the metal is heated until it is molten. The melt area has "cool zones" where cold air, ice packs, chilled drinks and cooling vests are available.

Sixty to 80 workers - in production, operations and maintenance - work with or near the molten metal. All employees in the melt area wear flame-retardant coveralls, specific eye protection with sideshields, specialized footwear, heavy leather gloves and hearing protection. Those working near the cupolas also wear aluminized gloves and overcoats over their work clothes, as well as faceshields over their protective eyewear.

The coveralls are maintained and tracked for use at Ford and are only allowed a specified number of washings before they are replaced. The aluminum suits are carefully maintained as well, and employees are encouraged to report any problems with the clothing. "In this environment, it certainly is in the employees' best interest to maintain it and inspect it," Dougall says.

At the casting plant, the choices for protective clothing are clearly listed in the job safety analyses (JSAs) Ford and the United Auto Workers (UAW) created for the production operation jobs. In the melt area alone, there are 20 to 25 JSAs, Dougall says. Employees and supervisors from each production and maintenance operation participate in the creation of JSAs, which are prepared by plant safety engineers and UAW health and safety representatives from each area. Dougall explains, "The JSAs are developed with input from employees and are reviewed with them as part of a comprehensive process. Employee participation in that process prompts considerably more ownership among employees in the overall safety process and the use of PPE and protective clothing.

"It provides employees with the opportunity to share their immediate knowledge of their jobs, how to perform them properly and, most importantly, safely."

The JSAs are reviewed annually and are posted in work areas and available on the plant's intranet Web site. Every employee has access to the JSAs on the job, and they are a powerful tool for new employees because all important information is provided in a standardized format.

Dougall, along with safety engineers and UAW health and safety representatives, are constantly reviewing the protective clothing and PPE used and researching new products as they come to market. It is not unusual to find Dougall, plant supervisors and employees in a meeting with product manufacturers and distributors to learn about new PPE offerings that provide better protection or comfort.

For example, the eye protection used at the facility was chosen for the type of high light-intensity, high-heat environment found at the casting plant. Eye injuries plantwide were reduced by 50 percent in 2001, Dougall says, with a goal of reducing them another 30 percent in 2002. He credits proper PPE with that drop in injuries, but notes that work station modification and employee participation played roles in achieving those goals.

Training - in job skills and in what protective clothing to wear, when to wear it, how to wear it and how to maintain and inspect it - remains vital at the casting plant. One mistake and the results could be fatal.

"It's very overwhelming to see metal being poured," Dougall admits. "You really have to respect molten metal. It is unforgiving."

Proper PPE at the CDC

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, there are two categories of biosafety laboratories - infectious disease and environmental health - and two types of laboratories - those in which encapsulated suits are worn and those that contain glove boxes. Sometimes, a lab requires glove boxes and suits.

CDC houses four levels of laboratories. Hazards such as soil contaminants are studied in Level One laboratories. Level Two researchers study infectious diseases that respond to immunization, like hepatitis B and influenza, as well as childhood diseases like measles. Level Three researchers examine human pathogens that are airborne threats, such as tuberculosis. Then there's Level Four.

Level Four is the shadow world where fact meets science fiction. Recent books like The Hot Zone gave outsiders some insight into the operations of these laboratories and the dedication of the researchers who work there.

The viruses and pathogens studied at Level Four have no cure, and there is no immunization. Researchers routinely deal with cultures of Ebola virus, Lassa fever and hemorrhagic fevers. Level Four laboratories are also the places where unknown emerging pathogens are studied.

"You have to have the psychological mind bent to work in a Level Four laboratory," admits Jonathan Richmond, Ph.D., director, Office of Health and Safety, CDC. "You have to think 'I want to work, I can work, under these conditions.' If you are claustrophobic, it would be a problem."

The "conditions" to which Richmond refers involve passing through multiple levels of security; donning a fully encapsulated suit with positive air pressure, a tethered hose and the "whoosh" of the air flowing into the suit as a constant companion; and conducting numerous safety checks.

The amount of time and effort that goes into the procedure for entering and exiting the laboratories speaks volumes of the dedication of the scientists who work there. It's good they're excited about their work, Richmond says, because just getting into the laboratories to conduct research is a job in itself.

Every day, Biosafety Level Four researchers change out of their street clothes and into scrubs. They move to a location outside the labs where the protective suits hang on hooks. They don their assigned protective suits - which are made of heavy rubberized plastic and are "like climbing into a big baggie," Richmond says - and their helmets and gloves and sling their air line hoses over their shoulders. Many researchers wear hearing protection as well because the noise inside the suits can be distracting.

Once dressed in their suits, they open an air lock and step into a small, hermetically sealed room, and the door automatically locks behind them. The air is released in the space, and then the inner door to the laboratory opens. They put on their boots and hook their lines into the air supply. Once a researcher or a group of researchers have moved into the "clean side," no one can follow until the chemical shower in the air lock is operated.

When they're done working, the scientists unhook their air lines, remove their boots and move back into the air lock. There, they rehook their air lines and push a button to start the chemical shower, which uses Lysol. Once the entire suit and helmet are rinsed, the shower automatically switches to water, and they again rinse every part of the suit. The showering process, which shuts off automatically to allow the outer door to unlock, takes approximately 15 minutes.

Suits are examined for rips, tears or worn patches. Researchers also inspect their scrubs: Wet spots on the scrubs means leaks in the suits. If no rips or wet spots are discovered, the researchers remove the scrubs, take a regular shower and get dressed in their street clothes.

"They make note if a suit needs to be repaired, and if they realize the suit leaked or know that they've been exposed somehow, then as a matter of record, they notify their supervisor immediately," Richmond says.

Once the supervisor is notified, the next step is to go to the on-site clinic, though "clinic" is probably an inadequate name for it because it is equipped to handle diseases that are the stuff of nightmares. Once there, the exposed researcher or researchers are placed on "fever watch." A fever is indicative of exposure. They stay there until the incubation period for that illness has passed.

"There are very few people, four to six, working in Level Four labs at any time," Richmond says. "They receive extensive training, both from the safety office and their mentors. Usually, they work in pairs."

Training to work in a Level Four laboratory, or any of the CDC labs requiring encapsulated suits, includes practice getting in and out of the suits, spending time in the suits in work-like conditions to discover if they can handle it psychologically, instruction in emergency procedures and instruction in specific job tasks.

Training includes the proper way to wear, care and inspect the suits that stand between the scientists and deadly pathogens. The suits generally have a lifespan of about a year as long as they are hung up to dry after the showers. "They don't get folded; that's a quick way for the suits to deteriorate," Richmond reveals.

Perhaps most importantly, the scientists are taught not to panic. If the strobe lights start blinking, which generally means there is a problem with the air supply or the power supply but could be something more sinister, everyone working in that laboratory needs to vacate "in a hurry," Richmond says. "They have bottled air available, about an hour's worth, and we have generators that immediately kick in during a power outage." There is enough air stored in the suits for four to five minutes so they can unhook and rehook air lines as they travel from room to room or so they can turn off the air to communicate with each other.

As exacting and time-consuming as they are, the safety procedures are working, Richmond says. "I'm not aware of anyone working in one of the suit labs contracting an illness," he notes.

Despite the challenges associated with the research in Level Four labs, "There is an awareness, an excitement, in knowing that you're one of only a handful of people in the world doing this kind of work," Richmond reveals.

The Ice Men, and Women, of Eielson

The members of the 18th Fighter Squadron and the 355th Fighter Squadron stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and their logistics groups, medical groups, operations groups, support groups and other tenant units of the base call themselves the "Icemen," and with good reason.

North Pole is the closest community to the base; it's nine miles away and has a population of 1,500. During the winter, the ambient temperature - we're not even talking wind chill here - has been known to drop to minus 60 F. Although most outside work is suspended or limited when the thermometer drops to minus 40 F or below, that still means many days working outside in conditions very few experience.

"You step outside, and any exposed skin stings immediately. It hurts to breathe. Some people can withstand it for longer periods of time. They become acclimated, and then there are those who think they are acclimated," says Capt. Tom Ruiz, 355th Maintenance Squadron maintenance superintendent, "but they're not." Those are the people who are probably at the most risk of frostbite.

Personnel who have job duties that take them outside - refueling and reloading the planes, performing maintenance, the crew chiefs, the people who maintain walkways and plow snow - are assigned about $1,200 worth of outdoor clothing. The key to staying warm in this harsh environment, agree the experts who live there, is layers; several layers of clothing, they say, with none of them too heavy.

Master Sgt. David Mills, superintendent of Eielson's Arctic Survival School, which trains the personnel stationed at the base in the importance of wearing the proper protective clothing and offers instruction on how to survive in the extreme conditions found there, says that polypropylene undergarments (long johns) are worn by many of the men and women who must work outside because the material wicks moisture away from the skin and it comes in three weights, with the heaviest being a thick, brown pile known as the "bear suit."

"Hardly anyone wears the 'bear suit,'" he says, "because it is too hot once you start moving or doing anything but standing or sitting."

Mills says that some personnel like to wear a couple of layers of the medium-weight polypropylene and cover them with a Gortex woodland camouflage jacket and pants, while others wear Carhartt coveralls as an outer layer. Some personnel, such as the flight crews, need to be protected from the risk of fire, so they wear Nomex flight suits.

Fleece is another popular garment at Eielson and makes "an excellent middle layer," according to Mills. Some personnel choose to wear fleece pants under their outer layer of garments, while others just stick to the long johns. "At minus 30 F and below, you're thinking of wearing both," Mills admits. Another option is "Chinese underwear," quilted nylon garments that provide insulation and wind protection but are not effective in wet conditions.

Other clothing worn by personnel includes vapor barrier boots, known as "bunny boots," which are worn in extreme cold. Gloves are especially important. "Reach out with your bare hand to open a door with a metal handle at minus 30 F and you become 'one' with it instantly. In real life, it's none too funny," Mills cautions. Personnel wear leather gloves or leather gloves with wool liners, and when it's really cold, they wear "gauntlets," which look like heavy, padded, furry, long mittens. Hats are important too, and several styles of caps, hats and hoods are issued. "One should always have two hats,"he says, "because one will get damp or crusted over with ice and snot-cicles."

Mills says the key to working in such a cold environment is to regulate the body temperature so that you don't sweat or get too cold, adding or removing layers as you go along. "Each individual has to experiment with different combinations and find what works best within his or her particular uniform restrictions," he adds.

"The philosophy, for the most part, is that if it keeps them warm, let them wear it," Ruiz says.

Staff Sgt. Richard Caudill, 355th Fighter Wing Ground Safety and craftsman, says that every year, lighter and more compact clothing is developed. "The squadrons look at what's out there, see if it's available and determine if they can use it for their mission," he says.

It is one of Caudill's jobs to review what he calls "mishap trends," such as an inordinate number of slips and falls ("Are they wearing the wrong boots?") or cases of frostbite ("What are they wearing, or not wearing, out there?").

"We are out there all the time, asking them what they're wearing, are they warm, how they're doing, if they can move and work in what they're wearing," Caudill says.

Ruiz admits he keeps a close eye on his personnel. "When you see someone trying to be a hero with no hat on at minus 20 F, that's when you step in and say something. You find out why they're not wearing it," he says.

That doesn't happen too often, Caudill claims. "When they get stationed here and they're not from here, they are more than happy to wear the clothing," he says, laughing.

"I'm from North Carolina, and I drove up here. When I got out of the car, it was minus 40 F. That was a rude awakening," he remembers. "Vehicles don't work as well in the cold ... nothing works as well in the cold. It's hard on vehicles, and it's hard on people."

When the temperature drops to minus 40 F, employees work in a buddy system; no one goes out alone. The dry air pulls moisture out of the skin, so it is imperative that personnel take frequent water and warmth breaks, spending some 15 or 20 minutes working outside followed by a 20- or 30-minute break.

"This is what it's like at minus 40 F in this dry cold," Caudill says. "If you take a cup of hot coffee and throw it in the air, it will evaporate before it hits the ground. It turns into smoke and disappears."

At Eielson Air Force Base, just as at Ford's Cleveland Casting Plant and the CDC's Level Four labs, wearing the proper protective clothing in the right way is key to survival.

"We remind people not to be a hero, to wear their protective clothing," Ruiz says. "Once they hurt themselves, they don't have value for our mission. Then they're not heroes anymore."

Sidebar

Extreme Experts Offer Tips on Protective Clothing

Although their situations are diverse, the experts interviewed for this article share some common ground when it comes to offering advice about choosing and wearing protective clothing.

Talk to employees. Employees have to wear the protective clothing, so talk to them and include them in the decision-making process. Find out what they want to wear and why. If clothing is too heavy or bulky, employees won't wear it. You don't want to underprotect them, but you don't want to overprotect them either.

Make it easy. The employers included in this article provide their employees with protective clothing and have guidelines in place that track when clothing needs to be replaced. In some cases, they offer cleaning services for the clothing. The easier you make it for employees, the more likely they are to use the proper protective clothing.

Education. Educate employees about why they must wear the protective clothing. In the case of employees at Ford's Cleveland Casting Plant, Randy Dougall notes that "there's no question about wearing protective clothing. You have to wear it." But that might not be the case at your facility. You must educate employees: Point out how protective clothing reduces injuries, when they should wear it, and how they should care for it and inspect it. Put it in writing, as Ford does with its job safety analyses, and make it easy for employees to access that information.

Layers work best. Whether protecting from heat or cold, layers of clothing, preferably layers that breathe and allow air to circulate, are best. They allow employees to remove some clothing when they get too hot or to add clothing if they are cold. Layering clothing helps to fight problems such as heat exhaustion, a concern whenever heavy protective clothing is worn.

Don't dehydrate. Heavy protective clothing, such as that worn at Eielson Air Force Base or Ford's Cleveland Casting Plant, and encapsulated suits, such as those worn at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can get hot. Educate employees about the signs of heat stress and exhaustion, and provide them with plenty of fluids so they stay hydrated. If necessary, provide them with a place where they can go to cool off. The same is true of any workplace where employees can get overheated.

Be vigilant. Walk around and look at employees. Are they wearing their protective clothing? Are they wearing it properly? If the answer is no, ask them why. Do they need replacements for lost or damaged items? Is the item inappropriate for their job tasks?

Offer job training for employees that includes wearing protective clothing. An employee who is perfectly capable of performing a job task might not be able to do it wearing coveralls and gloves. Also, as Dr. Jonathan Richmond at the CDC found, some protective clothing has psychological implications as well as physical ones. The time to find out an employee is claustrophobic is not when he or she is wearing an encapsulated suit and entering a confined space, Richmond notes.

Offer tips. What seems like common sense to you might not be so obvious to new employees. Remember when your mom tied your mittens together with a long string and ran them through the arms of your coat? She had a good idea, says Master Sgt. David Mills of Eielson's Arctic Survival School. He tells personnel to attach their gloves to a cord and run it through the arms of their coats. That way, they can remove the gloves to perform a job task, but don't have to worry about dropping them or losing them.

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