Updates Coming for Protective Clothing Standards

May 13, 2004
The ASTM F23 Committee for Protective Clothing is creating new standards for radiological, biological, physical, thermal and chemical hazards.

by Sandy Smith

Jeffrey Stull is a busy man. His "day" job is president of International Personnel Protection Inc. in Austin, Tex., which provides comprehensive services for protective clothing and equipment, including consulting on design, testing, selection, marketing and use against chemical, biological, thermal, physical and other hazards.

His other job, as chair of the ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) F23 Committee for Protective Clothing, involves rounding up the 230 members of the committee and putting them to work developing voluntary testing and performance standards for protective clothing. The F23 committee meets twice a year and is broken up into seven technical and five administrative subcommittees that address various specific hazards such as physical, chemical, biological, radiological and flame and thermal.

"Our goal is to come up with useful standards that will have an impact on the safety and health of the protective clothing user, but sometimes it is a big challenge to gain industry acceptance," admits Stull. "The majority of standards in the marketplace are consensus and voluntary, which means they don't have to be followed either by the product manufacturer or the end-user, unless they've been included in a regulation or adopted by a regulatory agency that has some enforcement ability."

Even that doesn't mean that workers will be protected, admits Stull. "The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is unable to update or write its standards in a timely manner. In many instances, referenced standards are out of date since their initial reference occurs during early stages of the rule-making process." So, says Stull, "Most compliance or lack of compliance with ASTM standards is based on the manufacturer's willingness to comply with the standard and the end-user's knowledge of the standard."

The Need for Good Test Methods

ASTM committees are responsible for recommending voluntary testing procedures for products, as well as for voluntary standards for product performance. "Manufacturers want to tout the performance of their products," says Stull, "but unless they're using the same tests, end users cannot make good comparisons of product performance." One of his goals is to create ASTM standards that establish a specific testing procedure for different types of protective clothing, so that end-users know they're comparing apples to apples.

Another peeve of Stull: "The majority of the chemical protective clothing industry is primarily predicated on the permeation test.... The results of the permeation test are given as breakthrough time and permeation rate. Most manufacturers pay sole attention to the breakthrough time and forget about the more important permeation rate that can be used to determine what levels of exposure can occur."

In the permeation testing of chemical protective clothing materials, he notes, much of the testing of products is done with 100 percent chemical for an 8-hour test period. "How often does a person have complete immersion in a chemical for 8 hours?" Stull asks.

Overprotection is a hazard in itself, and the comfort and productivity of the worker have to be balanced with protection, says Stull, who admits, "These trade-offs are difficult, but if the testing promotes a higher level of product than needed, then worker acceptance of clothing can be low." He points out that protective clothing can cause heat stress and can limit a worker's ability to move and function. "This reliance on misapplied permeation testing procedures comes at the expense of materials that might be more comfortable for workers," says Stull, who hopes to encourage the industry to make better choices between protection and use factors.

Voluntary vs. Mandatory Standards

ASTM standards are voluntary, and that opens another can of worms. Every industry, notes Stull, offers a different level of compliance to F23 standards.

He says that general industry tends to comply with standards only when forced to by OSHA or another regulatory agency with some teeth. As an example, Stull points to the voluntary standards for the molten metal industry as being ineffective, because most of the industry has chosen to ignore standards that have been in place for over 15 years.

In fire protection, there is a high rate of compliance for [voluntary] National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. Compliance with standards in the healthcare industry is mixed. While new standards are recognized by most manufacturers, many end users have been slow to embrace them. On the other hand, the electrical utility industry enjoys a high rate of compliance because OSHA recently wrote regulations referencing ASTM standards. "This type of cooperation can be rare," says Stull.

Working on New Standards

Stull says his committee is focusing its resources on hazard areas, such as radiological and heat and thermal. For example, there are no testing or performance standards for the vests and aprons used by x-ray technicians. Currently, they are made out of lead, and have been for years. "Now, there are other non-lead technologies that could offer several advantages," Stull notes, "and we need to develop test methods and performance specifications that will allow manufacturers and end users to assess these products."

In fact, radiological hazards are a "totally new" field for standards development, says Stull, adding, "We were amazed there are currently no standards that address this area of protection."

Another area lacking in standards is the area of thermal protection, says Stull. The F23 subcommittee that oversees thermal hazards (flame and heat) is examining test methods used to measure insulation's resistance to different types of heat, and may get into the performance of welding clothing and PPE against heat and flame exposure in different environments.

The F23 biological hazards committee is responding to increased concern about biohazards by developing standards to classify the performance of surgical masks and gloves. According to Stull, performance standards for such equipment could be different, depending on where the worker is located and what biological hazards are present. For example, in the emerging case of potential biological attacks, important questions become: "Is the worker at the point of release where the most toxin is present, or farther away, in a hospital treating people who were exposed to the toxin? Is the toxin one that can be inhaled, or is it something like anthrax, which can act on the skin?"

The chemical hazards subcommittee is tackling several issues, among them the section of material safety data sheets (MSDSs) that deals with the type of PPE needed to protect workers from a particular chemical. "A lot of MSDSs will say to use 'appropriate' PPE. What does that mean? This gives the end user absolutely no information to go on. They need to be more specific and provide better direction," says Stull.

Finally, the F23 physical hazards subcommittee members are examining needle-puncture requirements for gloves, chain saw protection and performance requirements for cut-protection aprons.

"What we're recognizing in ASTM is that writing a good standard is tough," says Stull. "Technologies change, and for protective clothing and PPE to provide better protection and better performance, there is a need for better testing and performance standards, and the participation of end-users in the process."

Stull hopes to get the F23 committee members to do a better job of going where the users are in order to better understand their needs and requirements for improved personal protection against the various hazards in the workplace.

Sidebar: ASTM F23 Standards Activity

1. The F23.40 Subcommittee on Biological Hazards is working on a standard that will set minimum documentation, design and performance requirements for surgical gowns. The standard will have a series of barrier classes to establish different levels of protection from blood and body fluids. Testing measures for the performance of surgical gowns for flammability, breaking strength, tearing resistance, breathability and linting will be included.

2. A new subcommittee on radiological hazards (F23.70) is creating specific test methods for radiological protective clothing. The subcommittee will examine test methods that measure how well materials attenuate the energy associated with gamma rays, X-rays and other forms of ionizing radiation. The standards developed by this group will include test methods, practices and product specifications.

3. The F23.80 Subcommittee on thermal hazards is finishing work on a specification that addresses protection of workers from molten metals and other flame and heat hazards. It sets minimum requirements for the flame and heat resistance of fabrics used in work uniforms and specialized protective clothing. One test involves exposure to molten metal to determine how well the clothing sheds the molten metal and resists degradation from high-heat exposure.

4. The F23.30 Subcommittee on Chemical Hazards is preparing a standard that will provide detailed guidelines for chemical manufacturers to make protective clothing recommendations on the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for chemicals.

5. A subcommittee on human factors is completing new standards for measuring the overall comfort of protective clothing in terms of its thermal comfort and breathability, in addition to standards that will allow for the consistent evaluation of cooling devices used with protective clothing. The new standards will establish consistent methods to determine the effectiveness of cooling technologies.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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