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Does PPE offer protection or cause harm?

by Marcus
Does PPE offer protection or cause harm?

Does PPE offer protection or cause harm? Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, explores the dangers that can be associated with PPE, and how to ensure PPE works with you rather than against you.

It goes without saying that firefighting PPE is absolutely essential to protect firefighters in the line of duty.  But in recent times, questions have been raised as to the suitability of some PPE, and whether protective clothing in some circumstances can actually do more harm than good.

The first duty of firefighting PPE is of course to protect the crew from the external risks associated with exposure to heat, flame lick, flash overs, water ingress and blood borne pathogens, through use of tough, resistant materials which cover the body.  But conversely, these types of suits and materials can be associated with additional health concerns including heat stress, danger of entanglement or snagging and restricted movement.

Thankfully, significant advances in fabric technology, garment design, and health and safety procedures mean that it is possible to source PPE that can be trusted to protect fire crews without introducing additional risks.  Knowledge, research and experience is of course paramount.  At Bristol Uniforms we have more than 60 years’ experience in the development of innovative protective clothing solutions for firefighters across the globe, and work closely with researchers, fabric manufactures and firefighters on the ground to ensure that our PPE is safe, highly effective and comfortable.

Heat stress prevention

Materials that protect against external heat and flame are often hot and heavy, trapping body heat and moisture, and can contribute to a dangerous rise in core body temperature known as heat stress.    A dangerous condition in any situation, heat stress is especially life threatening for firefighters, and is the number-one cause of casualties.  It increases muscular fatigue and interferes with cognitive function, causing a serious loss of balance and co-ordination which can result in slips and falls.  The healthy human body maintains its internal temperature at around 37°C, but a rise of just 1°C to 38°C is enough to cause significant harm and disorientation.  Heat stress also increases cardiovascular strain, in some cases leading to cardiac arrest and death.   Sadly, more firefighters die in the line of duty from cardiac arrest than from any other cause.*

Whilst it is essential to design PPE that protects against external risks by preventing transmission of fire and heat through the garment, at Bristol Uniforms we understand that coupled with this there is a need to alleviate the known health risks from the physiological responses of the human body to being enclosed within the clothing, by allowing heat and moisture to escape. Designing garments to address this complex combination of risks emanating from both inside and outside is key to creating high performance PPE.

Innovations from leading fibre and fabric manufacturers, such as WL Gore, PBI Performance Products and DuPont, have helped us to produce multi-layered garments that protect from inside and out.  A select combination of fabrics can offer resistance to fire, increased breathability, control of moisture, and a lighter weight – all of which help to reduce the occurrence of heat stress.
DuPont and PBI, for example, provide highly specialised and lightweight fibres for the outer-shell of a garment, which crucially provide outstanding air permeability and breathability, allowing metabolic heat to escape.   But when these fabrics come into contact with intense heat, such as from a flash fire, they instantly thicken, creating a barrier to prevent burns.
Our firefighting garments combine this type of outer shell with an inner moisture barrier and liner system which draws moisture away from the skin, helping to keep the body cool and dry.  Strenuous work in a hot environment causes profuse sweating, and if this sweat is not able to evaporate, the body is not able to cool itself effectively.  W L Gore is the principal supplier of the most commonly specified moisture barriers which come in a variety of fabrics in the Gore-Tex® and Crosstech® ranges.

Ergonomic Design

It’s not just the fabric of PPE that can cause problems, however.  Clearly, the design and style of a garment also plays a crucial role in contributing to a firefighters’ safety.     Any protective gear, even if it consists of the very latest materials covering the body from head to toe, becomes absolutely useless if it restricts movement.  Firefighters need to crawl, run, and climb in very dangerous circumstances in order to carry out their role effectively.  Their clothing has to be able to work with them rather than hinder them.

Bristol Uniforms’ world-class in-house Product Innovation and Development (PID) team is highly specialised in producing ergonomic designs to increase flexibility of movement, and reduce the risk of catching or entanglement.

Suitability for the job in-hand

The role of a firefighter is varied and physical, involving ladders, climbing stairs with heavy loads, performing searches, and applying water in fire-related emergencies for example.  But firefighters also frequently deal with non-fire related incidents such as road traffic collisions, medical emergencies, public unrest and flooding.  And each Fire and Rescue Service is likely to have its own specific needs and requirements.

By working closely with FRSs to offer bespoke solutions, Bristol is able to offer a wide variety of options to meet these particular preferences.  For example, in a move away from the traditional approach to PPE design, Bristol has introduced a new layered approach using three garments in a LayerFlexTM range.  When used in different combinations, the mid-layer coat, top coat and trousers provide the required levels of protection for structural and wildland firefighting as well as technical rescue.  The options they provide ensure that a firefighter is able to wear garments to suit the role they are undertaking, rather than wearing the same structural fire clothing for all roles.  This serves to improve ergonomics and comfort, and crucially has contributed to the lowering of heat stress in firefighters.

Innovative designs have also been developed for particular applications. For example, Search and Rescue operations often take place once the immediate danger of flame is removed, with USAR or technical rescue teams entering enclosed and confined spaces where high temperatures and often toxic smoke are hazards. Bristol has developed a range of clothing specifically for these types of operations.  RescueFlex is tear and puncture resistant,  provides protection against blood borne pathogens, physical protection at high risk points such as the knees and elbows, a high level of flexibility to afford manoeuvrability in confined spaces, and is lightweight to minimize heat stress.

Sizing and compatibility

As well as ensuring we provide the very best fabric, materials and designs, at Bristol we understand that it is absolutely crucial to provide garments that fit each and every firefighter well.  The most ergonomic, lightweight, flame-proof kit could still put a firefighter at risk if it’s too big, for example by increasing their physiological load due to excess material entangling in machinery.  Or again, if it is too small or tight, this can compromise the thermal protection by reducing air gaps.

We use a comprehensive sizing procedure, and can send our own specialist teams to undertake all measuring to ensure it is carried out correctly.  Because we have a large range of standard sizes (28 male and 28 female), every single coat and trouser we produce is made to fit a specific individual, because we know it is the only way we can assure optimal protective performance.  Special bespoke sizes are also available.

Crucially, we also ensure that all sets of kit are fully compatible, so that boots, gloves and helmets operate effectively with trousers and coats, without leaving areas of the body vulnerable or exposed to risk.  There are infinite combinations available to make up a full kit, and all of these are compatibility tested to ensure the garments work effectively together and provide full body protection.

Cleaning and repair

Once out in the field and in use, keeping firefighting PPE clean and in good repair is also essential for safeguarding the health and safety of the wearers.  Bristol offers a Managed Services option for the maintenance of its garments in the UK, which involves collecting soiled or damaged garments from FRSs around the country, transporting them to one of our two UK Service Centres for thorough cleaning, inspection and repair, before returning them to the customer within a guaranteed seven days.  The Centres handle up to 3,500 items of PPE every week. Unique bar codes on each item provide us with a thorough record of its life-journey from the date of manufacture, the specific rolls of fabric that were used to create it, and each wash and repair.

The Service Centres are also equipped to treat contaminated PPE, which have been exposed to toxic or hazardous materials and need to be cleaned in a specially controlled environment.

Bristol’s customers trust us to help protect their firefighting teams because we pride ourselves on literally knowing our garments inside and out, with attention to all health and safety considerations. We design and manufacture our garments to a very high standard, and take this attention-to-detail through to cleaning and maintenance to ensure that each and every item of clothing is fully operational before going back out into the field.

We employ our own specialist staff for every step of this process, from the designers to the machinists to the delivery drivers, so that we have full control at all times and can provide the quality and reliability our customers require.

By working closely with FRSs to identify specific requirements, and using our specialist knowledge and expertise, we will continue to develop PPE that offers the very best in protection whilst minimizing the risks of harm.

For more information visit www.bristoluniforms.com

*Source: Firefighter Fatalities and Injuries: The Role of Heat Stress and PPE, Firefighter Life Safety Research Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA, July 2008

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