Level A Hazmat Suits
Imagine if you will a petit college intern, performing her dream job of collecting water samples from a Secure Chemical Maintenance Facility in a landfill. We were pulling water samples for Dense Non-Aqueous Phase Liquids, or DNAPL. As is typical for springtime in Western New York the ground was thick with snow, so the work area was covered with a blue tarp to make it easier to work. It was cold that day, grey and blustery with no end to misery inciting weather in sight. Having multiple people on site, there was some frozen precipitation left behind on the tarp which made it slicker than the parking lot. As I was returning to our work area, I slid on the wet tarp and the water sample spilled. In the awkward seconds that followed, I tried to not fall on the test tube, and of course I did which then compromised my suit. The next rush of time found the crew using several shop rags and garbage bags to clean up the area, while I tried to remain calm and cover the breached area with my gloved hand while being led to an area that I could get the suit off in. Luckily I was not working with anything acutely hazardous, but the same practices applied per the training I'd received prior to donning the Level A PPE for this task.
Whether as a first responder, field tester or for ongoing hazardous materials cleanup and maintenance, employees must always be given knowledge, training and equipment to work safely with Hazardous Materials. Level A suits are fully encapsulating in order to keep gas, vapor, and particulates out; providing the highest level of protection against direct and airborne chemical contact. They could be considered a complete life support system in dangerous atmospheres. They are typically worn with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) enclosed within the pressurized suit, and are usually limited to just 15–20 minutes of use by their mobile air supply.
The level A Hazmat gear includes chemically protective gloves and steel toe boots with a complete face mask and hood. A positive pressure system is employed to slightly inflate the suit to prevent even the slightest particulate matter (gas, liquid or dust) from entering the suit and contacting the wearer's skin. An emergency backup air supply and an intrinsically safe two-way radio may also be worn inside the suit, often incorporating voice-operated microphones and an earpiece speaker for monitoring the wearer and the site conditions. There may also be a water supply and drinking tube included for longer job functions, especially in warm environments. All of the protective aspects of a Level A suit are great but make it quite heavy - which might exhaust even the strongest worker. Slow steady steps must be taken and any equipment necessary for the task must be carried carefully to not puncture or rip the suit during operations.
When we fit test respirator users per OSHA requirements, it's done by either a Qualitative or a Quantitative method, and Level A suit testing offers the same two options. As Level A suits also contain a respirator, users must be medically cleared prior to donning one. There are two different recommendations for testing Level A Hazmat suits- the first is the Qualitative test method which is useful as a field method for end users to determine changes in garment integrity following use. The user is required to perform nine separate exercises while wearing their suit that will indicate how the suit would perform under actual use in field operations.
The second testing method is Qualitative where the suit is connected to a Universal Pressure Test Kit and needs to be performed while the Level A suit is fully inflated. Dependent on the space you're working in, you may opt to send the suit out to a competent person for testing as it can take up a bit of space, and in cramped quarters you may just put a hole in the suit while testing it.
Level A suits can be used in many applications; and they are a very important form of PPE for environmental, medical, and chemical workers. You should always be aware of and be trained on what hazards you might be facing on any jobsite where the potential for exposure may occur. Make sure you consult with the Safety Representative, read their JSA and understand that if the PPE fails you need to remain calm and remember your training! No matter what level of PPE we might need for a job site or task, it's always important to train employees to check it for defects or visible malfunctions prior to use.
For More information on Level A suit testing, visit the following resources:
American Society for Testing and Materials links-
ASTM F1154-11, Standard Practices for Qualitatively Evaluating the Comfort, Fit, Function, and Durability of Protective Ensembles and Ensemble Components, ASTM International, West Conshohocken, PA, 2011, www.astm.org
DiVal Safety - http://www.divalsafety.com/index.php/services/level-a-chemical-suit-testing