Clothing is one of the most common forms of personal protective equipment (PPE). And while protective clothing seems like simple equipment, selecting the right type can be complicated.

In this article, I'll go over four common types of protective clothing, what they're used for, and what you need to know before purchasing them.

What You Need to Know Before Buying Protective Clothing

It's Your Last Line of Defense

Relying on protective clothing (and PPE more generally) to keep your workers safe is only acceptable once you've conducted a thorough risk and hazard assessment and have already implemented and exhausted every reasonable administrative and engineering control methods (learn more about The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls).

Manufacturers understand this. Check the warning label on the packaging for a pair of protective eyewear and you'll see the words "not a substitute for good safety practices and engineering controls." In other words, your PPE is your worker's last line of defense against workplace hazards, not their primary one.

First, Consult the Relevant Laws

The use of PPE is also highly regulated. There are general and specific clauses in the North American Safety Acts and Regulations, as well as references to Codes of Practice. There are also, importantly, actual standards, such as those issued by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and, for instance, the American National Standards Association (ANSI)/ International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) 107-2010 for high-visibility safety apparel.

So, your first step in selecting protective clothing won't be looking through product catalogs. Before you do that, you'll need to carefully and completely review the applicable laws in the jurisdiction where the work will be performed. Be sure to consult your company's policies as well, since they might mandate more protection than is strictly required for compliance.

Make Product Selection Part of Your Safety Policy

Matching protective clothing to your employees' specific jobs and work tasks can be tricky. To ensure due diligence and worker safety, your company needs to draft professional policies and procedures for product selection. This should cover more than simply the requirement of knowing and understanding protective clothing, and should guide the safety practitioner when it comes to applying that knowledge to the specific conditions of the workplace.

Disposable Clothing and Apparel

Disposable clothing is made from materials such as plastic or reinforced paper. As the name implies, it is intended for single use and meant to be discarded after the work has been completed.

Applications

Disposable protective clothing has two general types of application: protecting the worker and protecting the environment around the worker.

It is used to protect the worker when reusable forms of PPE are either inconvenient or where handling, storing, and laundering the PPE after use could put the wearer at further risk of exposure to a harmful substance. In fact, protective clothing that comes into contact with certain substances like asbestos will no longer be considered PPE but will itself become hazardous waste. A disposable option makes it easier to treat it as such.

Disposable clothing is also used in very dirty environments, which make washing reusable PPE time consuming or challenging.

It can also be used to protect the user from low-level radiation.

Conversely, protective clothing can be used to protect the environment in cases where dirt of fibers from the worker's clothes could contaminate a sterile environment (learn more in 6 Jobs that Call for Disposable Clothing).

Assessing the Cost of Disposable Clothing

Disposing of clothing after every use can seem like a poor use of the safety budget. However, it's important to remember that, unlike conventional PPE, it does not have to be handled, washed, dried, repackaged, and stored, all of which should be factored into your cost-benefit analysis when selecting PPE.

Protection Against Single Hazards

Perhaps the greatest problem with disposable clothing is that it is often expected to offer protection well beyond its design capabilities.

Some forms of conventional PPE will offer multiple forms of protection. Eyewear designed to protect the eye from impact hazards, for example, might also offer UV protection. But disposable clothing typically only offers a single level of protection. A simple paper coverall meant to protect against dust is unlikely to offer any cut protection or fire resistance.

Unless the manufacturer specifies that the product offers an additional level of protection, do not rely on it to keep workers safe from additional hazards.

Chemical Resistant Clothing

Hazardous chemical substances and physical agents are used in various industries. In addition to respirators and rubber gloves, workers may be required to wear protective clothing to prevent harmful exposure.

Consult the SDS

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) produces recognized guidelines regarding threshold limit values and biological exposure indices. OSHA also has a communication standard in place for Safety Data Sheets (previously called Material Safety Data sheets). Each SDS has a section (Section 8) that specifically references PPE, including apparel for specified products and chemicals.

For example, Section 8 of the SDS for Potassium Hydroxide specifies that workers handling it will need to wear rubber boots, along with a rubber apron, rainwear, or Tyvek disposable suit.

The safety practitioner must always follow the SDS instructions when there may be a chemical exposure, no matter how many control measures have already been put in place. Sanitizing a slaughterhouse kill floor or a meat-cutting line, for example, requires chemical protective clothing since the chemicals used still present a hazard to the employee even after all reasonable engineering and administrative controls have been put in place.

Flame Resistant Clothing

Flame resistant clothing protects the user from hazards present when working with open flames or extremely high temperatures, including:

  • Welding
  • Molten metal splashes
  • Flash fires

This type of PPE is often made up of a few layers of materials, including an aluminized coating; chemical (fire resistant, retardant, or rated fire proof) impregnated cloth; and natural fibers such as cotton, wool, or leather. Chemically treating protective fabric has the advantage of making garments highly flame resistant while adding little or no weight.

When selecting flame-resistant protective clothing, carefully compare the work environment and the potential temperature extremes faced with the melting point of the fabric in the clothing itself. The composition of the material in the fire gear worn by Canadian firefighters had to be changed when a firefighter suffered extreme burns from the non-fire-retardant reflective strip material sewn onto his turn-out gear. It is best to carefully analyze the situations your workers will face rather than allow any of them to suffer similar injuries.

Cleaning FR Clothing

Take additional care when cleaning this type of PPE. Unlike other types of protective clothing, the protection afforded by FR clothing might be due to the chemical treatments applied to the fabric. Spot cleaning the garment with a solvent or using chlorine bleach while washing it could remove some or all of its fire-resistant properties.

Just like you would read the label on your fine garments before throwing them in the washing machine, be sure to read and follow the cleaning instructions provided with your FR clothing. Otherwise, it might fail to protect when you need it most.

FR Clothing Costs

When you're buying protective clothing for your workers, fire resistance is something that would be nice to have, even if it's not strictly required. But it's important to realize that, while this type of clothing does give some impressive protection, it can be quite expensive. A company I work for recently purchased 400 FR parkas for a construction job in the far north of Canada, and the bill came up to $120,000 CAD (approximately $92,000 USD).

If you're looking to keep your budget low, only get fire-resistant protection for workers whose jobs might expose them to fire or high-heat hazards (see 5 Key Things to Know About Flame Resistant Clothing to learn more).

Clean Room Clothing

Clean rooms are rooms in which all sources of contamination are rigidly controlled, especially the people working in them. Clean room clothing, then, is designed to prevent the introduction of airborne particulates into the sterile atmosphere.

Clean rooms are found primarily in medical, pharmaceutical, electronic, and space aeronautical industries.

What Makes a Room a Clean Room?

ISO 14644-1 classifies a clean room based on the size and number of airborne particles per cubic meter of air.

There is an American standard, which has been cancelled but is still in wide use, known as the US Federal Standard 209E. It set the industry guidelines for clean room classification and denoted the number of particles at 0.5µm or larger per cubic foot of air.

Summary

Selecting the right protective clothing is complex and requires effort and diligence.

The best way to start is by doing the following:

  • Review the legislation
  • Identify the hazards and risks for the work that needs to be done
  • Consult the SDS for any hazardous product that will be used
  • Speak with manufacturers and industry partners whose workers face the same types of hazards

And remember that costs vary when purchasing protective clothing, but you should never let that be the sole determinant of what PPE you purchase. Cost is always a factor, but ensuring the worker's protection is the only acceptable outcome.