If you are planning a project in which your workers will be exposed to hazards, the importance of choosing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) selection cannot be overemphasized. A myriad of factors must be taken into account during selection of eye protection, hearing protection, suits, gloves, etc., so it is of the utmost importance to do your research before making any decisions. Although the selection process can prove to be complicated and almost never inexpensive, it is necessary in order to keep your workforce safe and healthy during operations. Even a basic understanding of occupational hazards and associated OSHA can make PPE selection go smoother.

In this case, we are going to take a look at how to choose a fitting protective suit depending on your situation.

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132 requires employers to complete several steps in project planning:

  1. Perform a hazard assessment
  2. Select PPE and inform employees
  3. Fit and train employees on use, care, and service life of PPE
  4. Verify training and audit compliance
  5. Retrain employees as necessary

Step one is the hazard assessment because without it, PPE selection can be difficult or go expensively awry.

Different PPE is required based on potential exposure. The type of respirator and cartridge necessary are dependent on the level and type of exposure. The same is often true for suits, generally referred to as Tyvek®, regardless of whether the suit is manufactured by DuPont or not.

Selection goes beyond whether the suit style has footcovers and a hood. It goes beyond the color of the material, which is often associated with specific sites and particular types of work. It even goes beyond deciding between the spun suits, which appear to be more for show than serving a serious purpose, and brand name Tyvek® suits. Additionally, given that employees may consume more than one suit per shift, there are also economic factors at play for anyone tasked with determining PPE selection.

So, how do we go about making decisions that may be questioned by anyone from accounting departments to federal regulators?

First, there are a few basic questions that can be asked. Do you need protection against particulate material such as asbestos, lead, or similar? Or do you need protection against chemicals in liquid-splash or vapor form? Particulate material exposure almost always warrants Tyvek® (or comparable), whereas many chemical protection situations may require the use of TyChem®.

A second consideration is whether FR (flame resistant) material is necessary. Disposable suits can be purchased in FR material, but to the best of the author’s knowledge, are only available in blue. You may hear that asbestos work requires a white suit, so what if you have an asbestos job that requires FR clothing? There is no regulation that requires a color coded suit for asbestos work, even if white has become an industry standard. If FR is a consideration, site specific requirements must be considered: can a protective suit be worn over FR clothing or must the protective suit be FR?

Beyond the basic questions, the selection process becomes more complicated, but there are resources that can help.

Familiarizing yourself with the pertinent regulations is always a good first step. In this case, OSHA 1910.120 (Hazardous waste operations and emergency response) is the place to start. The pertinent subsections are 1910.120(g)(3) through 1910.120(g)(5)(x), which requires that “Personal protective equipment selection shall be based on an evaluation of the performance characteristics of the PPE relative to the requirements and limitations of the site, the task-specific conditions and duration, and the hazards and potential hazards identified at the site.” 29 CFR 1910.120 does not, however, give significant information on fulfilling the requirements it establishes.

Detailed requirements and explanations may be found in the OSHA Technical Manual (OTM) Section VIII: Chapter 1. It’s tempting to think that a simple decision to vastly over-protect answers all the questions, but OSHA warns, “It is important that protective clothing users realize that no single combination of protective equipment and clothing is capable of protecting you against all hazards.” Additionally, OSHA warns against the dangers of overprotection.

Section III, “Protective Clothing Selection Factors” may be the most pertinent section for general usage. It includes “design considerations”, which may seem commonsensical, but factors such as ease of donning and doffing, accommodation of other selected equipment, comfort, and restriction of mobility are important considerations. When protective clothing is uncomfortable, restricts mobility, or is difficult to donn and doff, workers are much less likely to properly utilize the PPE. That means that any effort expended towards selection has been wasted, and potential for worker exposure rises significantly.

The definitions of “permeation, degradation, and penetration” are important to understand, as they are the foundations by which manufacturers test and rate protective clothing.

Permeation is the time a chemical requires to cross the protective barrier, as opposed to penetration which is the movement of chemicals through zippers, seams, imperfections, or damaged areas of the protective clothing. Degradation refers to physical changes to the material either chemical exposure, use, or storage conditions. For example, sunlight and heat can break down the material used for protective clothing over time.

How do we evaluate a manufacturer’s claims?

OSHA has some advice (Section C, “Evaluate Manufacturer Chemical Resistance Data Provided with the Clothing): permeation data should include the following.

  • Chemical name;
  • Breakthrough time (shows how soon the chemical permeates);
  • Permeation rate (shows the rate that the chemical comes through);
  • System sensitivity (allows comparison of test results from different laboratories); and
  • A citation that the data was obtained in accordance with ASTM Standard Test Method F739-85.

Remember, it is the end user’s responsibility to verify the appropriate data for protective clothing, and to that end if there is no manufacturer data provided or it’s lacking, the manufacturer should be asked to provide complete data. An excellent example of good technical data can be found in the DuPont™ technical handbook for TYVEK® and TYCHEM®. In addition to providing full technical data for DuPont™ products, it provides excellent background information on how the various tests used to measure protective clothing are performed. But let’s face it, as interesting as understanding how and why may be, and regardless of whether it gives you the technical knowledge base to make competent decisions on protective clothing choice, it is a time consuming task.

It does help to have a basic understanding of how and why, even when utilizing the easy and effective shortcut put out by DuPont™.

SAFESPEC™ 2.0 is an excellent tool that allows end users to insert one or more chemical/hazard names and then answer a series of questions. The program then gives an end user the right protective clothing for the job. It may not answer every question, but it’s the best place to start. And with the basic knowledge contained in this post and its references, becomes a powerful tool in our efforts to have safe, productive workforces.


If you have further questions or require additional resources and tips, please do not hesitate to give TriMedia a call at 866-866-5125.