Protective clothing is a type of personal protective equipment (PPE). In addition to being used as working clothes or uniform, it also protects workers against injuries caused by hazards such as contact with chemicals or flame, striking, stabbing, radiation, extreme cold, and hot or adverse weather conditions. Protective clothing is used to achieve safety for people in professional and other surroundings, with safety is defined as “freedom from an unacceptable risk of harm” (ISO, 1986).
Every year about two-million employees are the victims of debilitating accidents in the workplace. If the implications of many of these injuries are also taken into account (progressive loss of sight, hearing, and damage to the lungs) it will be obvious why we use PPE in the workplace.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers protect their employees from workplace hazards that can cause injury. Besides providing employees with appropriate protective clothing and equipment, employers are also responsible for providing them with relevant information, instructions, training and supervision, so that they understand why they have to use protective clothing and how to use it properly.
The measures to achieve safety can be divided into three levels:
- First of all, processes, equipment and products have to be made safe, which means that they have to be conceived in such a way that any risk of harm is excluded or spatially separated from the people involved.
- If for any reason persons have to come near to the source of risk, they have to be protected by appropriate protective equipment.
- A last means of avoiding exposure to risk is to put a warning sign in front of the source of risk.
Controlling a hazard at its source is the best way to protect employees. Depending on the hazard or workplace conditions, the use of engineering or work practice controls is recommended to manage or eliminate hazards to the greatest extent possible. For example, building a barrier between the hazard and the employees is an engineering control; changing the way in which employees perform their work is a work practice control. Employees should co-operate with their employers by taking instruction, undergoing training and making use of the PPE provided.
Looking at the general tendencies in the development of protective clothing, one can see that in the beginning people were looking at the protective properties of normal clothing, which they then tried to improve upon in one way or another. If, for example, they realised that a material had good thermal insulation properties and therefore offered certain protection against heat, they used this material for the whole garment and, if necessary, in a greater thickness. At a later stage, specialised materials with optimised protective properties were developed and used for the manufacture of protective clothing. These were the so-called technical textiles. Later the strength of influence of manufacturing processes on the protective properties of the ready-made garments was realised. Due to this, protective clothing is now developed more and more as a complete protective system, using modern materials, sometimes also known as intelligent materials. This trend will continue and even become stronger in the future.
The development of protective clothing has shown considerable improvement over the last few decades. The advancement from the use of normal clothing with some protective properties to the conception of complex, multifunctional protective systems using sophisticated modern materials and manufacturing techniques was a long journey. The variety of end use sectors has also widened over the course of time. Whereas in earlier times the occupational safety applications dominated, nowadays the use of protective clothing in the leisure and sports sectors has gained great importance. This is due to the fact that the modern society sets a high value on leisure activities and extreme sports.
On the technical side, the requirements that protective clothing has to fulfil have become much more complex. In the beginning the protective function dominated, whereas today the combination of different and partly contradictory requirements like protection, comfort, fashion and other functional properties make the development of modern protective clothing a complex task. In seeing the improvements to safety, health and quality of life it can produce, however, it is also a highly satisfying task.
The trend in the future will go into the direction of complete multifunctional protection systems using optimised manufacturing techniques and new, intelligent materials. High attention will be given to thermos-physiological aspects and other use properties.
Types of protective clothing
Protective clothing used to protect the whole body is based on the workplace hazards and the industry types. Protective clothing can take the following forms.
Coveralls are used to protect the whole body. They are available in disposable or rubber-like materials. Disposable coveralls are lightweight and reasonably comfortable. They offer good protection if they are not damaged. If they become severely contaminated or damaged, discard them at once. Chemically resistant coveralls are similar to a rubber suit and must be worn when the label indicates the requirement for full-body protection.
Gloves are used to protect the hands and arms. There are many types of gloves available today to protect against a wide variety of hazards. The nature of the hazard and the operation involved will affect the selection of gloves. The wide variety of potential occupational hand injuries makes selecting the right pair of gloves challenging. It is essential that employees use gloves specifically designed for the hazards and tasks in their workplace and encountered in their specific job role, because gloves designed for one function may not protect against a different function even though they may appear to be an appropriate protective device.
Helmets are used to protect the head. There are many types of helmets available in the marketplace today. In addition to selecting a protective helmet that meets ANSI standard requirements, employers should ensure that employees wear helmets that provide appropriate protection against potential workplace hazards. It is important for employers to understand all potential hazards when making this selection, including electrical hazards. This can be done through a comprehensive hazard analysis and an awareness of the different types of protective helmets that are available.
Safety shoes are used to protect the foot from falling or rolling objects, as well as objects that may crush or penetrate the foot. It has impact-resistant toes and heat-resistant soles that protect the feet against hot work surfaces common in roofing, paving and hot metal industries. The metal insoles of some safety shoes protect against puncture wounds. Safety shoes may also be designed to be electrically conductive to prevent the build-up of static electricity in areas with the potential for explosive atmospheres or nonconductive to protect employees from workplace electrical hazards.
These are used to protect the eyes. Protective eyeglasses have safety frames constructed of metal or plastic and impact-resistant lenses. Side shields are available on some models.
Goggles are tight-fitting eye protection that completely cover the eyes, eye sockets and the facial area immediately surrounding the eyes. They provide protection from impact, dust and splashes. Some goggles will fit over prescription glasses.
Welding shields are used to protect the eyes and face. They are constructed of vulcanised fibre or fibreglass and fitted with a filtered lens. As well as protecting the eyes from burns caused by infrared or intense radiant light, they also protect both the eyes and face from flying sparks, metal spatter and slag chips produced during welding, brazing, soldering and cutting operations. OSHA, for example, requires filter lenses to have an appropriate shade number to protect against the specific hazards of the work being performed in order to protect against harmful light radiation.
Laser safety goggles
These speciality goggles protect against intense concentrations of light produced by lasers. The type of laser safety goggles an employer chooses will depend upon the equipment and operating conditions in the workplace.
These transparent sheets of plastic extend from the eyebrows to below the chin and across the entire width of the employee’s head. Some are polarised for glare protection. Face shields protect against nuisance dusts and potential splashes or sprays of hazardous liquids, but will not provide adequate protection against impact hazards. Face shields used in combination with goggles or safety spectacles will provide additional protection against impact hazards.
Single-use earplugs are used to protect the ears. They are made of waxed cotton, foam, silicone rubber or fibreglass wool. They are self-forming and, when properly inserted, they work as well as most moulded earplugs.
Pre-formed or moulded earplugs are another form of ear protection. They must be individually fitted by a professional and can be disposable or reusable. Reusable plugs should be cleaned after each use.
Earmuffs are another type of hearing protection. They require a perfect seal around the ear, meaning glasses, facial hair, long hair or facial movements such as chewing may reduce the protective value of earmuffs.
The half-mask chemical cartridge respirator is the most common air purifying respirator. It consists of pre-filters to remove dusts, small particles and spray droplets, as well as cartridges containing activated charcoal to remove vapours. Special cartridges and pre-filters are needed for protection against pesticides. It is important to use the pre-filters and the cartridges together to properly protect yourself. Using one without the other is not safe.
Canister gas mask
The canister gas mask is another type of air purifying respirator. It is a full-face mask respirator that covers the eyes, mouth and nose. It is often used in areas where there is a high concentration of pesticide vapours. One must wear at least a full face canister gas mask when applying a fumigant.
Harnesses are used to protect workers from falling down when they are working at elevation, such as on scaffolding. The harness should limit a fall to a drop of not more than 2m by means of an inertia device. It should also be strong enough to support the wearer’s weight and be attached to a strong structure through a firm anchorage point above the user.
Selection of appropriate clothing
All PPE clothing and equipment should be of safe design and construction, and should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion. Employers should take the fit and comfort of PPE into consideration when selecting appropriate items for their workplace. PPE that fits well and is comfortable to wear will encourage employees to use PPE. Most protective devices are available in multiple sizes and care should be taken to select the proper size for each employee. If several different types of PPE are worn together, make sure they are compatible. If PPE does not fit properly, it can make the difference between being safely covered or dangerously exposed. It may not provide the level of protection desired and may discourage employee use. For example; OSHA requires that many categories of PPE meet or be equivalent to standards developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI has been preparing safety standards since the 1920s, when the first safety standard was approved to protect the heads and eyes of industrial workers. Employers who need to provide PPE in the categories listed below must make certain that any new equipment procured meets the cited standard. Existing PPE stocks must meet the set standard in effect at the time of its manufacture or provide protection equivalent to PPE manufactured to the international standards and criteria. Employers should inform employees who provide their own PPE of the employer’s selection decisions and ensure that any employee-owned PPE used in the workplace conforms to the employer’s criteria, based on the hazard assessment, safety requirements and international standards.
As an example, OSHA requires PPE to meet the following ANSI standards:
- Eye and Face Protection: ANSI Z87.1-1989 (USA Standard for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection)
- Head Protection: ANSI Z89.1-1986
- Foot Protection: ANSI Z41.1-1991
- For hand protection, there is no ANSI standard for gloves but OSHA recommends that selection be based upon the tasks to be performed and the performance and construction characteristics of the glove material – for protection against chemicals, glove selection must be based on the chemicals encountered, the chemical resistance and the physical properties of the glove material
However, the suitable protective clothing should be selected according to the results of the risk assessment. When conducting the assessment, the following should be noted:
- Devise a checklist first. Ensure all risks, necessary information and safety measures taken are addressed.
- Assess the risks in the workplace as a start. When assessing the risks, consider whether there are other safety measures that are more effective than using protective clothing.
- Assess its effectiveness to guard against risks from accidents and diseases when protective clothing has to be used. Employees or other representatives should take part in the assessment. Base on the assessment, select the type and level of protection of the required protective clothing.
- Take the potential hazards related to the work concerned as the basis for consideration. Other information like accident rates, case studies on occupational diseases, results of chemical and physical analysis of the material used should be taken into account. Moreover, the workflow and the guidelines provided by the protective clothing manufacturer should also be considered.
- Document the assessment results as part of the company record on the provision of PPE.
- Review the assessment methods and the relevant safety measures at appropriate times and revise when necessary.
Comfort and cleaning
Protective clothing should fit well and be comfortable. Try it on before buying. In addition, the following should also be considered:
- Is flexibility or movement affected?
- Is the clothing durable?
- Is cleaning of the clothing easy?
- What types of under garments should be used with the protective clothing?
For certain protective clothing, such as full body protective clothing for handling asbestos, the way of how to handle it after use shall be considered. One should read and understand the information on the labels on the protective clothing.
Such information includes:
- Product name
- Trademark or other means to identify the manufacturer
- Types of product
- Business name or coding
- International safety standard that the clothing conforms to
- Symbols (to indicate the appropriate environment for using it and the level of protection)
- Cleaning instructions
Through co-operations between employers and employees, the potential safety and health hazards at work can be reduced, with work efficiency improved and unnecessary losses minimised. However, when engineering, work practice and administrative controls are not feasible or do not provide sufficient protection, employers must provide PPE for their employees and ensure its use.