Mark Saner, Contributing Editor
One accident is all it takes to cause serious damage. In 2012, a metal plating machine operator at a California-based factory was mixing a solution of water and Aluminum Etch 108 powder, a dry solid mixture that contains more than 50% sodium hydroxide, in a bucket. A clump of powder fell into the bucket, and the mixture overflowed, splashing onto the employee. As a result, the employee was hospitalized for nine days with third-degree chemical burns.
When the incident happened, the employee was wearing safety glasses, chemical-resistant gloves and steel-toe boots, but he was not wearing the chemical-resistant apron that was provided by the employer.
Why Protective Clothing Matters
The proper protective clothing can go a long way toward reducing the potential for serious injuries and the consequences that go along with them. Employers are legally required to provide it, in many cases. Specific information on protection against chemical hazards can be found in safety standards and regulations such as OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1450 and NFPA 45.
Beyond the tragedy of human injury and loss, a single burn injury can cost a company millions of dollars in hospital fees, OSHA fines, increased insurance premiums, legal costs and lost productivity.
The Evolution of Chemical-Splash Protective Workwear
Fortunately, recent innovations have significantly improved the workwear options available for chemical-splash protection. In the past, protection against chemical-splash hazards typically meant wearing a chemical-resistant apron over a traditional lab coat or work uniform. These aprons tend to be stiff and uncomfortable. In some cases, disposable chemical-splash protective lab coats are used instead of aprons. These usually offer poor breathability, making them yet another uncomfortable option.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) must also be worn consistently and correctly to be effective. If protective apparel is uncomfortable, employees may be tempted to neglect wearing it or make alterations to it that get in the way of proper protection. Furthermore, products such as chemical-splash aprons, which are generally used on an as-needed basis instead of as part of an all-day uniform, can be difficult for employees to remember to wear.
In response to these less-than-ideal options for chemical-splash protection, new technologies began to be developed. For example, you can now purchase re-usable chemical-splash protection (CP) lab coats that resemble traditional white coats, but are treated with a proprietary finish to repel liquids and resist the penetration and wicking of small, inadvertent splashes of many liquid chemicals. They are made from a lightweight, comfortable fabric designed to offer excellent breathability and, unlike chemical-resistant aprons, they protect the arms, whole torso and upper legs.
Chemical-Splash Protection and Flame Resistance
Of course, there are many environments where chemical-splash protection alone isn’t enough. Frequently, chemical-splash hazards are found in workplaces where thermal hazards, such as arc flash and flash fire, are present. This is often the case in laboratories, chemical-processing plants, pharmaceutical companies and manufacturing facilities where paints, cleaners, coatings, batteries, agriculture chemicals or LEDs are produced.
New products are significantly improving the protective apparel solutions for these work environments, as well. Prior to recent innovations, protection against chemical-splash hazards and thermal hazards required two separate garments—one to provide flame-resistant (FR) protection and one to protect against splashed chemicals. Not only is this uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it also makes it harder for employees to remember to wear each garment they need for protection.
Today, protection against chemical hazards and thermal hazards can be achieved with a single, comfortable garment. New lab coats and coveralls that offer FR properties combined with chemical-splash protection (CP) provide convenient multi-hazard protection for a variety of workplaces. These FR/CP products are lightweight and designed to be worn as all-day attire—helping to increase the likelihood that they will be worn when they’re needed.
Tips for Choosing the Right Products
Before selecting PPE for chemical-splash protection, it is important to consult all the regulations and standards that apply to your industry. The most important consideration should always be providing the proper level of protection.
Among the products that offer the appropriate level of protection, most of the time it is best to choose the ones that offer the greatest level of comfort. As previously mentioned, comfortable PPE is more likely to be worn consistently and correctly. While comfort is often subjective, garments made from lightweight, breathable fabrics are typically considered to be more comfortable. Another key factor in both protection and comfort is fit, so companies will want to be sure that each employee has protective apparel in the correct size.
Finally, companies should consider durability. Durable products offer better long-term protection and are cost-effective. Protective apparel with rips or worn spots may fail to provide adequate protection. Less durable products often have lower upfront costs, but they need to be replaced more often. In general, more durable products offer better overall value and safety benefits.
It is easy to forget that accidents can—and do—happen. That’s why it is essential to take a step back, from time to time, and make sure that the proper safety practices and protocols are in place, including protective apparel that is worn properly and consistently. WMHS