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Hazmat suits are often portrayed in movies as the first and final defense against outside contaminants. Unlike their movie counterparts, hazmat suits have a very real-world role with a lot of thought put into their design.
In the event a chemical spill or airborne contamination, a hazmat suit is designed to minimize your exposure to the environment. They are used in a variety of scenarios where various responders need protection.
If you’re new to hazmat suits and are looking to add one to your disaster kit, this guide should help you navigate the complicated world of hazardous protection a little better.
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What Exactly is a Hazmat Suit?
Short form for Hazardous Material Suit, a hazmat suit is a sealed garment that is designed to provide protection against dangerous substances. Often referred to as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), it is required in many environments where the wearer may be exposed to adverse conditions.
A hazmat suit is commonly used by law enforcement, firefighters, first responders, specialists, and employees in toxic environments. There are different grades which guard against different types of substances. Due to the complexity and caution associated with hazmat suits, extensive training is provided to those who wear them.
In recent years hazmat suits are being used by nurses to battle various diseases in hospitals and foreign countries. The versatility lies in the availability to give oxygen to the wearer while providing the physical protection needed in that specific situation.
How Do They Work?
Hazmat suits are broken down into individual parts that are sealed together to form a barrier. The different pieces of a hazmat suit include:
- Rubber boots – Usually made of thick rubber or touch plastic to protect against chemical exposure.
- Coveralls – Plastics, such as PVC, are used since they are impervious to many biological chemicals.
- Gloves – Much like hospitals, the gloves are made of latex or a nitrile material.
- Face shield – These can vary from simple goggles, to full-out masks and face shields.
- Respirator – Similarly to a SCUBA diver, a self-contained breathing apparatus and tank are attached to the wearer.
The individual pieces are generally made of plastic, rubber, and technical fabrics designed to work together and make essentially a piece of armor. An independent oxygen supply is provided for the wearer and they are pretty much impervious to the outside environment.
Of course, the different grades affect what the wearer is protected against. Simpler garments can be slipped on while more advanced suits need multiple people to help put it together.
There are many manufacturers of hazmat suits and they are required to follow the strict guidelines outlined by the various disaster and medical entities who govern the regulations.
What Does A Hazmat Suit Protect Against?
The main protection offered by hazmat suits are against nuclear radiation, chemical substances (both liquid and gaseous), and high temperatures, including fire.
The general idea is to protect the sensitive areas on your body, such as the eyes, ears, and lungs from contamination. They are even sealed at the seams to protect against intrusion from gaseous compounds.
Each hazmat suit has its own rating, and it’s vital to make sure you get the right one for the job. What you would wear in a nuclear facility would be quite different from a hazmat suit used to set up an aerosol mist to clean a lab.
Hazmat Suits And Radiation Protection
It is easy to be confused when it comes to how hazmat suits protect you from radiation. When it comes to radiation exposure, there are two ways that affect us: irradiation and contamination.
Irradiation is when the body absorbs radiation from the environment around you. There are materials that can easily stop this from happening with special shielding using lead or iridium.
Contamination is when your body is exposed to radioactive particles in the environment. This is especially bad when you inhale some of the matter and why an air filter is vital to the protective systems. These suits also help stop you from transmitting the particles and contaminating the areas you visit.
In the end, it is a combination of metal shielding and high-quality air filtration that will lessen the effects of radiation exposure in specialized suits that can get quite expensive.
Fire Protection With Hazmat Suits
Firefighters are the most common people to use hazmat suits meant for fire protection. In a burning building, they are exposed to toxic chemicals in the air which can affect respiratory function.
Additionally, corrosive chemicals and fire can harm the firefighters through their skin, so full coverage is required. This means an anti-fog mask and an oxygen tank.
Fire-retardant chemicals and materials are applied to the suit to ensure that a fire will not catch while they work. This can also act as a temperature barrier since the environment will be quite hot.
The Different Types of Hazmat Suits (A Through D)
The United States follows a different regulatory system when it comes to the levels of protection that hazmat suits are identified by. The US follows a letter grading system from A to D, where in the EU you can expect a numbering system (levels 1-6). There are some similarities between the two systems, but for this article we will be focusing on the US letter grading system.
Level A hazardous material suits are meant to completely enclose the wearer from the environment, including using a respirator. Level D is technically not a hazmat suit but requires PPE to protect the eyes and body, such as glasses and an apron.
Here is a breakdown of the different levels of hazmat protection in the US to give you a better picture of what to expect.
|A||• Gas tight, sealed suit. |
• Positive pressurized oxygen tank on the outside.
• Full respirator under face mask.
• Chemical resistant inner layer and steel toed boots.
• Offers the highest level or protection.
|B||• Not gas sealed. |
• Can be fully enclosing or partially.
• Oxygen tank can be inside or outside of the suit.
• Primarily protects against chemical splashes, not gasses
|C||• Not gas sealed.|
• Can use gas mask or air purifying respirator, no tank.
• Uses a hard hat.
• Firefighter gear is typically this level since it offers heat and chemical protection.
|D||• No respirator or other breathing apparatus needed. |
• Consists of aprons, goggles, rubber gloves.
• Used when there is minimal danger to chemical exposure
The Emergency Response Levels and Hazmat Suits
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a global body whose mission is to eliminate death by hazardous conditions. They are responsible for a lot of the education and standards we see today regarding hazmat situations. Their codes are designed to minimize workplace risks through transparent and consistent applications.
The emergency response levels were created by the NFPA in order to help differentiate between hazmat scenarios. A nuclear catastrophe needs to be approached in a much different manner than an infectious disease, and this helps identify what equipment is needed at that particular time.
There are three levels in the emergency response system and they vary in severity and equipment needed.
|1||• Presents the least amount of risk. |
• The hazardous substance is easily contained with local resources (e.g. a house fire).
|2||• Requires cooperation from multiple agencies. |
• Potentially long-lasting public effects (e.g. a pandemic).
|3||• Requires the work of all local, federal and state resources. |
• Long-term damage will be catastrophic (e.g. nuclear disaster).
These clearly outlined scenarios give the initiative over to the experts where they can quickly gather the resources needed without having to make a guess.
How to Choose The Right Hazmat Suit
The guidelines above are required for the suit to be certified as providing the appropriate level of protection. How the independent manufacturers provide that is a result of their final design and features.
Before selecting the right hazmat suit for you it is important to fully understand the task that you need it for. Having a short questionnaire for yourself can really make the choice a lot simpler. Include questions such as:
- What are you protecting yourself from? – Chemical, gas, nuclear, or spaghetti sauce?
- Who will be wearing it? – Gender, height, weight, any conditions that would be aggravated by wearing the suit.
- What is the activity they will be doing – How long will they need to be in the suit? Is it in a confined space? Will there be others there?
- Any additional requirements – Managing oxygen requirements or additional tools for the job.
Once you have your criteria established, you can refine your search based on the information you have acquired about the job. Most hazmat suits are divided into levels of emergency which make it easy to select what you’re looking for.
Evaluating Products and Manufacturers
Since a hazmat suit can mean the difference between getting harmed or not, it is a good idea to do some research into the company that is providing you with the equipment. With the regulations being as strict as they are, certain requirements need to be met in order for the hazmat suit to be recognized at a certain level.
In your research make sure you check out things like:
- Is the product properly certified?
- Do their products have any warranty against defects?
- Is the company from an established distribution network?
- Does the manufacturer provide full support including instructions on using the PPE?
- What complaints have been filed against the product?
Accessory Selection and Further Requirements
Some levels of hazmat suits have variations depending on the environment or scenario. Encapsulated gas-tight suits offer the most protection since you are sealed inside the suit with an oxygen tank on the outside.
Disposable hazmat suits are meant to be destroyed after being used, typically after an extremely hazardous event. These are the suits you see people climbing out of in a decontamination chamber followed by them sealing the suits in garbage bags. The majority of hazmat suits are reusable within their lifespan.
You can also choose how to enter the suit with different models having opposite entry points. Some suits you enter from the back and others you zip up from the front. There are even hazmat suits specifically made for diseases such as Ebola and parasitic infections.
Additional considerations should be approached based on the situation and there are some accessories that can help with that. Most scenario-specific suits will provide attachment systems for accessories that are designed to work with it.
Some of the accessories you can integrate into your hazmat suit system include:
- Additional ventilation systems/decontamination hoses
- Headlamps and other lights
- Heat sealed and other bound seam alterations
- Kevlar gloves and padding
- Gas-tight fittings
- Cooling vests
- Chemical applications for fire retardancy
- Optional visors with anti-fogging properties
Why Are There So Many Colors of Hazmat Suits?
You may have noticed that there is an entire catalog of hazmat suit colors. Not just a fashion statement, each color is representative of a code. This is a visual representation for the public and officials that these people are here for a specific job. It can also help identify the level of danger within the area.
Yellow – These are commonly used in public emergencies. Traditionally, yellow is the color of caution which people easily identify.
Red – Level A hazmat suits are generally red and this is because they represent danger. It is designed to alert others to danger and to leave the area.
Blue – You will find these in biological labs or places with dangerous chemicals as the color blue is associated with medical scenarios.
Silver – Used by geologists working near volcanoes, the silver is actually a type of foil that helps reflect heat. You don’t see this color of suit in other scenarios very often.
White – Often seen in medical scenarios and hospitals, white hazmat suits are designed to promote a sense of calm. This color will be used in medical situations such as infectious diseases.
Orange – If you work in contracting around insulation, specifically asbestos remediation or spray foam applications then you might see a yellow or orange hazmat suit. They are used to keep construction materials off your clothing and away from your skin.
Hazmat Suit Quality and Maintenance
Most hazmat suits are reusable and require maintenance to prolong its life. Materials can break down over time, whether due to age or just wear and tear from normal use. When you purchase a hazmat suit it’ll come with an expiry date as the coating or other components could break down.
There are several signs of a degrading hazmat suit and it is best to replace the garment rather than try to fix it. Before and after every use you should look the suit over for things like: cracks, swelling, discoloration, and tearing on the seams.
Pay special attention to the boots as they have the most contact with the ground and will wear through faster than other components. Most employers will make their employees wear disposable booties to extend the life of the hazmat boots.
Regulations and Standards
For the US and Canada, the NFPA is the governing body for regulatory affairs and certifications. EN 943 and NFPA 1991 are the certifications you’ll see on the hazmat suits you buy.
The EN 943 is mainly for protection against liquid chemicals and gasses. Most chemically protected suits will have to abide by these regulations.
The NFPA 1991 is the big certification that ensures the consistency of design and performance requirements. The criteria for this certification include:
- Vapor tightness
- Fire resistance
- Chemical permeation
There is a little more to the certifications, including some regulations on liquid gas protection and chemical fires but those are optional.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the frequently asked questions people have before purchasing hazmat suits.
Should I get disposable or reusable hazmat suits?
As a rule of thumb, reusable hazmat suits will always be more durable and of higher quality materials than a disposable suit. In terms of sustainability disposable suits are terrible for the environment and if not dealt with properly, can create a new hazardous scenario.
Do astronauts use hazmat suits?
There is a lot of radiation up in space and astronauts used specialized suits that are designed to repel radiation. Astronaut suits are a prime example of a Level A suit.
Do I need any special certification to wear a hazmat suit?
Yes, any employee who comes into contact with hazmat materials or hazardous materials using a hazmat suit must undergo training every few years to ensure they are up to date on current practices.
Hazmat suits are a simple solution with complex nuances that change depending on the situation. They provide ample protection against the harshest environments and chemicals we have ever experienced.
Many industries rely on hazmat suits to protect their employees and they are the first line of defense against a lot of catastrophes that affect the public.
Don’t forget to research the company you’re buying the suits from and that they are in line with NFPA and their strict certification processes.
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