Gavin Walker explains why changing workforce demographics are leading to new chemical protective suit designs
It’s widely recognised that the demographics of the working population are changing, with people living longer and retiring later. Coupled with a decline in the working population
in age groups under 40, the average age of workers in Europe is increasing. For the chemical industry this has meant that skilled workers are getting older, and in some cases the physical burden of the work they undertake is becoming a limiting factor.
For some plants the weight of traditional personal protective equipment is an area for concern, as re-usable air-fed and gas-tight suits tend to be heavy and require a rigorous (and costly) testing and maintenance programme to ensure that they are always fit for use. In Germany, the employer’s insurance regulations (G26) specify that where suits in excess of 5kg are to be worn, personnel are required to annually undergo a comprehensive health-screening programme, which reduces the pool of available workers and further increases costs.
Three years ago, the German Plant Fire Association (VFDB) – the collective body for chemical plant fire-brigades – approached a number of manufacturers with a set of requirements for a new generation of single-use, light-weight Type 3 (liquid tight) chemical suits that are gas-tight to ISO 17491-1:2012 Method 2 (the gas-tightness inflation standard for protective clothing) and suitable for use in potentially explosive environments. These requirements pushed at the limits of current materials (and standards) but following an intensive R&D effort, Respirex, one of Europe’s leading manufacturers for industrial and emergency gas-tight chemical suits, has developed a new range of three suits that meet these requirements. The GLS 300A is an encapsulating suit with self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) worn inside the suit, the GLS 300B is for SCBA worn outside the suit, a facemask and filter or airline respirator, and the GLS 300C is an air-fed suit used with breathable air from an external compressor.
New suits, new standard
Current standards didn’t cover garments of this type, so Respirex and the VFDB worked with the DEKRA testing lab to develop a new standard, DEKRA FRM 90.166.0, and suits are CE certified to this and the European PPE Directive 89/686/EEC.
These advances are possible because modern multiple-layer barrier fabrics such as Chemprotex 300 (used on the GLS suits) provide greater permeation resistance against a broad range of chemicals than traditional Viton-based materials, but at a much lower weight. The resulting suits are more comfortable, considerably lighter and provide protection against a broad range of industrial chemicals. Suits made from Chemprotex fabrics also come with access to Permasure, an online toxicity modelling application that calculates safe working times for 4,000 common chemicals.
One of the largest chemical plants in Germany (and internationally) that has adopted these suits has calculated that, compared to their previous heavy re-usable suits, the GLS suits save over €100 per use, as the single use nature of the suit means that there is no need for cleaning, repair or re-testing, and the suits can be simply incinerated after use as they are halogen free.
Feedback from users is that the new suits are far more comfortable and leave the wearer considerably less tired at the end of a shift, while the reduction in maintenance, testing and repair is welcomed by plant operators.