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Ensuring Chemical Protection - Minimising the risks chemical hazards can have on workers

Published: 10th Sep 2010


The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) is the leading trade body within the UK safety industry and an HSE-recognised competent authority. Its members include manufacturers, distributors, test houses, certification bodies, safety professionals and service providers. Here the BSIF looks at the issue of chemical protection and offers advice on how to ensure employees remain safe.

Ensuring chemical safety

“Chemical Safety is achieved by undertaking all activities involving chemicals in such a way as to ensure the safety of human health and the environment. It covers all chemicals, natural and manufactured, and the full range of exposure situations from the natural presence of chemicals in the environment to their extraction or synthesis, industrial production, transport use and disposal.” World Health Organisation Chemicals present a significant health and safety hazard in the workplace from their manufacture, storage, supply and carriage, right through to their use. However, there are many chemicals (some highly dangerous or toxic) used in industry every day, which correctly handled cause no harm. It is essential that correct health and safety procedure is adhered to to minimise the risks chemical hazards can have on workers. As chemicals present a hazard in all situations from their manufacture through to their end use, and are then used in a variety of different situations and locations, this can be a difficult task.

Minimising the risk and protecting from hazards

It is crucial to protect employees and the best way to do this is by carrying out a thorough risk assessment. However, when considering chemical protection the exercise can be problematic due to the variety of affected working environments - laboratories, paint shops, maintenance jobs at production plants or nuclear power plants, construction and remediation sites, cleanrooms, through to medical facilities and emergency responders who may be deployed to a chemical incident. Once the risk assessment is complete, ‘reasonably practicable’ steps should be taken to minimise identified hazards, ideally by engineering it out.

However, when eliminating these hazards is not viable, it is necessary to deploy personal protective equipment (PPE) and other specialist safety equipment.

A comprehensive risk assessment will not only identify the need for protective equipment such as gloves and coveralls but will also indicate where more specialist PPE may be necessary, for example respiratory protective equipment (RPE), to ensure that people are fully protected. A thorough risk assessment will also ensure that full consideration will be given to emergencies such as spills and leaks of hazardous liquids, and the presence of toxic powders.

Apart from their legal obligations, if employers do not provide suitable PPE or insist that it is used correctly, they can place their staff in danger of severe harm. The consequences of exposure to harmful substances can be significant, although many are not immediately obvious. Spontaneous chemical burns, acute intoxication and instant allergic reactions are clearly visible, but exposure to carcinogens and long latency diseases can cause severe chronic illness and be fatal over much longer periods, often several years, as in the case of asbestos. In high hazard areas, lethal consequences could occur from a single exposure to some chemicals depending on the concentration, toxicity or level of contamination of the chemicals being used.

The selection process

There is a daunting range of PPE available and product selection can be very complicated.

Paul Bryce, Microgard Product and Technical Manager, said: “Conventional material safety data sheets (MSDS) simply state ‘Wear suitable protective clothing’.

The difficulty for a user in the selection of “suitable” chemical protective clothing is in the interpretation and understanding of the numerous European Norms and protective clothing manufacturers related performance claims.”

Due to the complexity and dangers of working with chemicals, the BSIF would suggest that to ensure safety equipment being deployed will provide suitable protection, purchasers and specifiers of PPE consult with their supplier or the PPE manufacturer to pre-select appropriate products for the identified risk. Once suitable safety equipment is selected, it is essential it is used in the correct manner to ensure that the wearer remains protected at all times, and again, further assistance should be sought with wearer trials and staff training in donning and doffing (dressing and undressing) procedures of all chemical protective garments and additional PPE that is worn at the same time.

Awareness of the product and its limitations, such as sorbent and respiratory filter capacities, is essential and often due to their nature, it can be difficult to be fully prepared for even predicted spills identified through a risk assessment.

In recent times there has been a worrying increase in substandard safety equipment in the European marketplace. This has been exacerbated by the economic downturn causing many companies to try to reduce overheads. However, even in times of economic downturn, it is vital not to make any compromises or short-cuts when it comes to protecting people in the workplace.

The BSIF has been working to raise awareness of the problems created by these products and would like to see counterfeit and illegal products eliminated from the UK marketplace. Purchasing vigilance is essential and if a product is unusually cheap, has an unknown brand name, does not state performance and/or has the name of an unknown manufacturer, it should trigger further investigation. The BSIF has addressed the reliability of suppliers by introducing its Registered Safety Supplier scheme, which identifies qualifying organisations and verifies that their product offer is ‘genuine and safe’ to PPE purchasers. Without extra care in the procurement of safety equipment to be sure that it is a legitimate safety product, there is a strong possibility that people will be at risk.

Mike Ramirez, Technical Manager, Arco Limited, fully supports the BSIF initiative to eliminate non-compliant PPE from the UK Market. Arco are members of BSIF and the Registered Safety Supplier scheme. “As the UK market leader, Arco has always followed a rigorous testing regime for its branded products to ensure continued conformance against EN standards. This includes certification before the product is launched into the market and regular due diligence testing throughout the life of the product. The safety of the people using our products is of upmost importance.”

Chemical protective clothing - the first line of defence

By definition, chemical protective clothing keeps the wearer safe from potential contamination from hazardous materials via the skin, in whatever form and concentration it may come: solid particulates, gases, liquids under pressure or not, from low to high concentrations, organic or inorganic chemicals. When selecting appropriate chemical protective clothing, several factors must be taken into account such as the type of task being performed, the nature and concentration of the substance used, but also the best possible balance between protection and comfort to ensure the clothing is worn. While there are many protective coveralls available on the market, not all of them provide the same level of performance, even if they are certified for the same type of protection.

Ian Samson, Training Specialist, EMEA, DuPont Personal Protection, said: “Chemical protective suits are classified in Cat 3 in six different types that take their type of exposure into account, ranging from gastight suits to suits for particulate protection. It is also important to take other norms into account, such as the EN 14326-1 for protection against biological hazards or the EN 1073-2 for protection against radioactive particles.

“A chemical protective suit can only offer the appropriate protection if it meets all the requirements of the working conditions. In other words, it needs to be reliable, strong enough to resist hard physical working conditions, but its design should also be such that it is adapted to the other PPE that is worn: e.g. full face protective masks or double gloves. Moreover, it is essential that the manufacturer of chemical protective suits offers the wearers a full support, ranging from expert information on chemical permeation data, fully documented product ranges and certifications, up to an easy-to-understand donning and doffing procedure.”

As part of its remit to monitor the PPE market, the French Ministry of Labour identified that the test methods used to ensure that chemical resistant clothing complies with the PPE Directive did not provide consistent results with microporous materials. They therefore organised a testing campaign to check PPE compliance regarding the protection of workers from some chemical risks, and regarding the regulations set out in the French Labour Code that transpose EU directive 89/686/EEC relating to PPE into French law. The initial phase, launched in cooperation with the French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, or AFSSET, a state administration supervised by the Ministers for the Environment, Healthcare and Labour, consisted of checking whether suits complied with required norms and regulations and whether they effectively protected workers from various chemicals used in the agricultural, industrial and construction sectors.

The preliminary results published revealed that the French authorities believed that nine suits in ten did not conform, with reasons for the non-conformity including deficiencies in the instructions for use and not meeting technical compliance. Some products have since been advised as unsuitable by the French authorities and the manufacturers decided, on a voluntary basis, to temporarily remove these suits from the market.

Of course this raised concerns within the health and safety industry, although the EU Commission has not accepted the French safeguard clause application. BSIF members are contributing to the review of the appropriate standards. In the meantime, impervious materials are not under question and those from reputable manufacturers do what they claim, as do the majority of microporous products.

Donning and doffing

When using chemical protective coveralls it is important to dress and undress (donning and doffing) in the right way in a safe environment and to check that all is correct before proceeding into the working environment. After leaving the working environment, it is important to undress safely to minimise risk of harmful substances transferring to hair, skin and clothing on removal of protective suits, and potentially compromising the safety of the wearer and/or their colleagues and family after they have left the ‘danger zone’.

Ian Samson, who trains in the correct donning and doffing procedures, offers this advice: “For best practice, a contamination-free changing room should be made available in which to don protective clothing and equipment, and another to doff and dispose of contaminated garments and equipment. The size, type and integrity of a suit should always be checked before use.

“Donning: Footwear should be removed before the protective coverall is put on to reduce risk of damage to the coverall and any potential contamination from shoes/boots. All objects that could obstruct work should be removed from jacket and trouser pockets and it is recommended in many cases that all gaps and joins should be sealed with adhesive tape when the suit has been donned (e.g. with respirators and gloves). A colleague should be present to check that the suit is donned correctly and that all gaps are sealed. Before entering the hazardous area, the worker should extend his or her arms sideways and above the head and squat down to ensure that all PPE will stay in place and that the suit fits properly.

“Doffing: When the nature of the hazardous substance and/or level of contamination requires the decontamination of protective clothing before its removal, gloves and boots should be cleaned first in order to prevent dust being thrown up and protective clothing should be wiped clean or sprayed down with warm water. It is often necessary for the decontamination/doffing procedure to be assisted by a colleague dressed in the appropriate protective clothing and equipment. Any contaminated items removed should be immediately disposed of in a chemical waste container provided for this purpose. When removing the protective suit, it should be made certain that it is only held by the non-contaminated inner surface in order to prevent contact with the hazardous substance. The process of removing the suit usually results in contamination of the doffing area, which must also then be cleaned.”

Ongoing maintenance and storage

An effective system of maintenance of protective clothing is also essential to make sure the garment continues to provide the degree of protection for which it is designed. Therefore, the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule (including recommended replacement periods and shelf lives) must always be followed.

Maintenance may include cleaning, examination, replacement, repair and testing. The wearer may be able to carry out simple maintenance (e.g. cleaning), but more intricate repairs must only be carried out by competent personnel. Care should be taken when laundering garments as high temperatures can affect some features e.g. effectiveness of reflective tape.

Where protective garments are used, adequate storage facilities must be provided for when it is not in use, which should be adequate to protect the garments from contamination, loss, damage, damp or sunlight. Where clothing may become contaminated during use, storage should be separate from any storage provided for ordinary clothing.

The use of RPE

The need for RPE will have been identified through the initial risk assessment. Using industry benchmarks and legal standards, the risk assessment will cover a number of areas from identification of the hazard, the workplace exposure level, measuring the concentration of any contaminate, the length of exposure, the workload of the person wearing the RPE and their general fitness levels. When the risk assessment has been completed and all these factors are measured against the correct standards, the employer is able to make an informed decision about the type of RPE required to protect workers in any given situation, although appropriate knowledge is essential for suitable product selection.

While many larger businesses and high risk industries have robust processes in place to ensure that workers are properly protected, many small to medium size businesses are still confused about the selection process, and could be putting lives at risk as a result. They may simply look at their suppliers’ catalogue and pick what they presume to be the best or most cost effective piece of equipment, without any knowledge of the particular application and the level of protection offered.

The selection process does not end here though because one of the main excuses for workers’ reluctance to wear any kind of protective equipment is bad fit. In the UK around 5.5 million workers are exposed to respiratory hazards, but a significant proportion are not issued with the correct respirator, or have RPE which does not fit properly despite a legal requirement for fit testing. The difference between a correctly fitting face mask and a poorly fitted, leaky and uncomfortable one could mean the difference between life and death. Chris Else, Senior Consultant in Arco’s Safety Risk Management Services team, said: “As a member of the BSIF and an expert in all aspects of safety,?Arco and its Safety Risk Management Services team has supported the BSIF in the development of its recently launched Fit2Fit Accreditation Scheme. Up until now, fit testers of RPE have not been accredited, often making the selection of a ‘competent’ person a matter of luck and guess work.”

“The introduction of fit testing is the final piece of the jigsaw. We can select, we can train and we can inspect and maintain the RPE to ensure its performance and now we can be certain that it fits properly.”

The BSIF Fit2Fit Test Providers Accreditation Scheme is fully endorsed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It aims to lift the quality of RPE fit testing and provide users and purchasers with a database of competent fit testers that will help to ensure they are compliant. Employers who select those accredited Fit2Fit personnel to carry out fit testing on their employees will mitigate liability in the event of an accident.

However, for employers it’s not just a moral issue of trying to ensure that their workers are protected, it is a very real legal requirement - and the process does not end there. Chris added: “It’s not good enough to hand over an essential piece of protective equipment and let the wearer get on with it; training should follow the syllabus outlined in EN529 and at the very least instruct wearers in why they should wear the RPE, equipment instruction including how to fit and use it properly, and maintenance of the equipment including any limitations it may have.”

Careful maintenance is essential for RPE equipment. EN529 outlines that RPE should be inspected on a monthly basis, if the equipment is to be kept for more than a month and re-used. This must be formally recorded and these records kept for the lifespan of the mask and for a further five years after disposal of the equipment. This has been the subject of recent amendments to respiratory standards within the UK as it was noted that RPE testing standards did not take account of products used in oily conditions that are then reused after storage. It was believed that safety could be compromised if the information on the product is unclear or incomplete and therefore a range of respiratory protection standards have been adjusted to correct this problem.

Preparing for the worst

During 2003/04, the Health Protection Agency, together with the Scottish Centre for Infection and Environmental Health, identified 844 chemical incidents that had an impact on public health. Chemical spills and leaks were the most common, with 301 incidents1.

Alan McArthur, Technical Specialist for 3M, said: “It is essential for companies working with hazardous liquids to be prepared for the worst, however it is also important for them to be realistic.

“The level of hazard varies significantly in different locations due to different liquids, handling and storage facilities. Nevertheless, unless in extraordinary circumstances, it is very rare that all the chemicals on site will be spilt, and therefore spills will be manageable and can be predicted to some extent.

“Through accurate planning and developments in standards, there is a better chance of ensuring that there will be suitable PPE and sorbents onsite to handle emergency spills of liquid chemicals and an adequate quantity to deal with predicted spills.”

The BSIF has been reviewing relevant issues and creating initiatives to reduce the incidence of work related injury in the handling of liquid spills. Key areas for focus include improving the quality of sorbent products and the reliability of performances being claimed; developing relevant standards to generate a level playing field in manufacturers claims on product performances, and to assist user selection of products; promoting awareness, or stimulate regulatory motivation, of the need for adequate stocks of sorbents to be available close to the area where liquids are stored, handled and/or used.

Different sorbents work most efficiently with different types of liquid depending on the type of sorbent material and its chemical properties. As these products are not regulated it is very confusing for those responsible to select appropriate sorbents with reference to manufacturer’s claims only. The information available on material datasheets is often inadequate and the type of protective equipment to use is not always clearly stated. Therefore the BSIF, in conjunction with a number of stakeholders including the Environment Agency, has developed a sorbent selection guide to assist Emergency Services, and other industrial users of liquid chemicals within the UK, to select the most appropriate sorbent to deal with liquid spills.

Safety assured

Although working with chemicals in any environment can be a risky business, with the adequate assessment, protection and planning they needn’t be a risk to employee safety.

Ideally, as with all occupational hazards, the consolidation of the appropriate PPE for the different tasks would help to make the selection process simpler, balance costs and improve availability, while protecting the wearers at the highest level.

If there is any uncertainty, advice should be sought from manufacturers and suppliers or from independent authorities such as the BSIF, which aims to provide correct and easily understandable information to ensure adequate protection, and ultimately reduce occupational injury.



Author Details:

British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF)

Formed in 1994, the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) is the leading trade body within the safety industry and an HSE-recognised competent authority. Its members include manufacturers, distributors, test houses, certification bodies, safety professionals and service providers.

The Federation aims to support and represent suppliers of safety products and services across all aspects of safety legislation, standards making and major occupational safety issues, and has active links with a number of government departments and more than 120 representative trade bodies.

For any queries or further guidance regarding this article call: 01745 585600 or see the BSIF website at:

Published: 10th Sep 2010 in Health and Safety International

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The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) is the UK's leading trade body within the safety industry. We have members including manufacturers, distributors, test houses, certification bodies, safety professionals and service providers. Our aim is to provide...