As the father of a firefighter, I know that impulse decisions can often mean the difference between life and death. While emergency response teams must have the ability to make split-second decisions, they need to take their time when it comes to selecting their hazmat gear.
There are several types of certification, but we will address the National Fire Protection Association 1991 standard, the gold-standard in hazmat safety. This certification represents the highest standard in hazmat suit protection on the market, as suits must pass rigorous tests of both physical and chemical resistance.
While NFPA 1991 certification is an important indicator of a hazmat suit’s quality, other elements should be considered in making a responsible decision – weight and maneuverability, material, fit and maintenance.
Weight and maneuverability directly affect endurance and safety out in the field, making them two of the most important considerations when selecting an NFPA 1991 certified hazmat suit.
The most notable factor influencing weight is the number of layers used to produce the suit. Single-skin suits are advantageous because they often weigh less than their multi-layer counterparts. Selecting a single-skin suit can save as much as eight pounds. With the average firefighter carrying 35 to 40 pounds of equipment, each pound spared is a welcome relief on the joints and heart.
Single-layer suits also facilitate a wider range of motion, allowing hazmat personnel to maneuver both hands and body easily, while operating inside the suit.
Material is the foundation of any hazmat suit, and it can mean the difference between protection and exposure. If a product has received NFPA 1991 certification, you can rest assured that its material has passed an abrasion test and will be able to combat chemical permeation in the event of damage to the suit while in use. During the test, sandpaper is used to abrade the suit’s material. After the material has been abraded, the suit is tested to ensure chemicals are not able to permeate through the remaining material.
The material composition of a suit will allow you to further gauge its durability. Material can be composed of fluoropolymers, rubbers, or thermoplastics. Fluoropolymers offer the greatest temperature resistance as they are able to withstand heat up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit with no material degradation. Thermoplastics generally melt when exposed to temperatures as low as 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and rubbers are often stiff and heavy.
When evaluating fit, you want to consider each component of your hazmat gear, as well as the complete ensemble.
Dexterity is the key test when trying on gloves. Traditional multi-layer glove systems have poor dexterity, making it nearly impossible to bend the fingers. Multi-layer gloves also have a tendency to invert, making reinsertion of the hand difficult.
If a hazmat tech has just finished using his radio, he must have the ability to reinsert his hand quickly. Single-piece gloves provide greater dexterity, making removal and reinsertion of the hands a simple task. Single-piece construction also means that no layers can be physically removed, ensuring consistent, maximum protection.
Visibility is crucial to all hazmat operations, whether fixing a gas leak or navigating through toxic chemicals. Often, suit visors will hang loosely on the face, causing poor visibility. This is sometimes the result of a poorly fitting suit.
Internal Belt Systems
Your visor should rest comfortably and securely across the brow line, using the internal pressures of the suit.
Some of the more durable constructions have the visor directly welded into the suit’s material.
Not all suits have an internal belt system. Look for suits that include this feature, which couples the suit to the user’s waist to increase the range of motion and overall function of the suit.
Internal belts serve to promote stability by holding the suit up at waist level, subsequently easing pressure off the neck and head.
It is common for integral booties to bunch up inside overboots. This results in discomfort while standing and walking, and can ultimately affect your safety by making it difficult to walk as you navigate dangerous scenarios. To prevent this problem, some integral booties are composed of soft material, which remains very comfortable when inside the overboot. This is a small feature that makes a big difference in the overall fit of your suit.
Frequently, suits can be too rigid or stiff, making it difficult to maneuver while in dangerous situations. When trying a suit on, be sure that movement is fluid, not strained by the fit.
The first tests of maneuverability are simple. Make sure you can squat, bend over, and reach your arms high into the air with minimum discomfort and aggravation.
Maintenance is important from both a safety and cost-savings perspective. Two elements that affect maintenance are shelf life and exhaust valves.
A common shelf life is five years. Some suits exceed that, offering 15 or more years. Some suits contain exhaust valves, which carry their own maintenance requirements. For these products, users should be aware that they will need to change the rubber diaphragms in the valves every two years. If you are not up for that extra step, look for a valve that requires no maintenance.
Finally, while the above elements are important to consider when selecting a certified hazmat suit, never forget the most basic step. Take your suit for a test walk around the firehouse.
Editor’s Note: David J. Clark, who has over 40 years of experience with personal protective equipment, is the district sales manager for the ONESuit line of chemical and biological protective products at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Merrimack, N.H. He is a certified hazmat specialist and a guest Hazmat Pro Board Certified Instructor at Texas A&M University.