Spray Foam Insulation PPE, Safety, and Basics

Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation has become popular over the past few years for both commercial and residential applications because it helps reduce heating costs and decreases fossil fuel usage. This type of insulation is more energy-efficient than traditional fiberglass insulation, and it's usually cheaper to install and purchase. Therefore, many homes and buildings opt to use this type of insulation over its fiberglass alternative.

While demand for SPF has increased, there are also a growing number of health risks and safety concerns. Spray insulation is often produced on the job site and not in a production facility. It's made by mixing chemicals together that react quickly and expand to create a foam that air seals, insulates, and offers a vapor barrier or barrier to moisture.

When installed properly, SPF can form a continuous barrier around corners, walls, and modeled/contoured walls. This insulation material is known for its great air sealing qualities and is a top choice for creating an air barrier or blocking unwanted air leaks from cracks, seams, and joints. It’s widely used as a gap filler to seal gaps and as a means to prevent energy loss.

How is Spray Foam Made?

Two sets of chemicals are mixed on-site during the installation. Professionals commonly refer to the chemicals as “A-Side” and “B-Side” due to the separate containers they come in. These chemicals must be stored separately until they are properly mixed. Mixing the two sets of chemicals triggers a rapid chemical reaction that creates the foam.

What Are the A-Side and B-Side of Spray Foam Insulation?

  • A-Side: The A-Side typically consists of a 50/50 mixture of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) and polymeric methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (pMDI). Exposure to these chemicals, also known as isocyanates, can cause severe skin problems and respiratory damage (breathing problems).

    According to the EPA, these types of chemicals are reported to be the leading cause of work-related asthma, and in some cases reactions have been fatal. Symptoms during exposure, or immediately after, can include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, irritation of the lungs and eyes, fever, sore throat, tightness in the chest, headaches, joint pain, and a stuffy nose.
  • B-Side: This mixture consists of a polyol resin blend and smaller amounts of amine and/or a metal catalyst, blowing agent, surfactant, and flame retardant. This mixture helps control the stage of the chemical reaction that creates the foam bubbles and helps create some of the protective characteristics of SPF like flame retardancy.

What is a spray foam cell?

Spray insulation is referred to as open cell or closed cell due to the nature of the small bubbles (cells) that make up the foam. Foam cells can be open, allowing air and liquids to permeate, or closed, remaining impermeable to liquids and gases.

What’s the Difference Between Open Cell and Closed Cell Foam Insulation?

Open cell and closed cell foam are two different types of spray foam insulation. Both building materials have different strengths and weaknesses depending on their application, the surrounding environment, and/or the goal of the insulation project.

  • Open-cell foam: Open cell foam has cells that aren’t completely encapsulated or closed off. This means the cells, or bubbles, are purposely left open allowing for air and moisture to penetrate. The “hollow” and opened cells create a softer, more flexible material. This type of foam insulation is known for its ability to expand—this makes it useful for insulating hard-to-reach areas like crawl spaces, nooks, cracks, and corners for an airtight environment.

    Most open-cell foams are deemed air impermeable at a minimum of 3.5”. It’s also great for soundproofing, however, it is not ideal for locations with extreme weather because it's not as good of an insulator. This type of SPF is typically more affordable than closed-cell foam.
  • Closed-cell foam: This foam is made up of cells that are completely closed meaning air and moisture cannot enter or permeate the cells. Cells are pressed together tightly, further preventing air and moisture penetration. Because the cells are fully closed and tightly packed, this foam is more dense, rigid, and stable. This makes it a better insulator, water-resistant, and a great vapor barrier.

    It is ideal for large-scale insulation projects where spacing is limited because at around 1.5” thick, closed-cell foam is considered air impermeable. With the foam curing less thick, it can be layered multiple times to achieve a higher level of protection than open-cell foam in a standard wall.

PPE for Spray Foam Insulation

Spray foam insulation safety starts with understanding how it works, as well as requiring protective clothing for spray foam and related insulation products during installation. There are certain factors that affect curing rates. Workers must be familiar with these factors because it may not be safe to enter the building after installation. For example, toxic fumes and particles can linger in the air or travel to other areas of a building.

Ambient conditions, such as humidity and temperature, can also play a role. This also includes poor applicator technique. This is why indoor air quality monitoring is helpful for determining if toxic chemicals are still present in the air.

Typically, it's recommended to avoid the indoor environment for at least 24 hours after spray foam has been installed. The list below outlines the needed protective clothing for foam insulation:

  • Respiratory protection: Air-purifying respirators (APR) and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) for exterior applications; Supplied-air respirators (SAR) for interior applications.
  • Eye protection: Safety goggles or safety goggles in combination with a face shield.
  • Hand protection: Chemical-resistant gloves made of strong rubber such as nitrile, neoprene, butyl, or PVC.
  • Foot protection: Chemical-resistant boots and chemical-resistant boot covers.
  • Head protection: Hooded respirator or coveralls with an attached hood.
  • Skin protection: All exposed skin must be covered. Disposable, chemical-resistant coveralls that protect against sprays and mists should be worn.

According to OSHA regulation 3.35, employees must use personal protective equipment and clothing as instructed to avoid misuse or damage. If any damage or defect is present, employees must notify the clothing provider ASAP to either fix the damage or sterilize the equipment.

Applicators, helpers, and adjacent workers who may enter the work area need spray foam PPE for their health and safety. The appropriate clothing depends on the potential for exposure, but applicators should wear disposable coveralls to prevent mist and spray from contacting clothing and skin—exposed skin should not be visible. When not wearing a hood respirator, the coverall should have an attached hood or headcover. Properly fitting gloves should be made of chemical-resistant rubber to protect against chemical exposure.

Eye protection is needed to prevent chemical splash from entering the eyes, as well as contact with vapors and aerosols that may be present while spraying. Wearing contact lenses while applying SPF is discouraged. Full-face air-purifying respirators may be appropriate for exterior applications but may not be appropriate for confined spaces.

Why Use Disposable Clothing?

Disposable protective clothing has many advantages. Some jobs are better suited for disposable clothing because they become too dirty or useless after a task or project. Disposable clothing allows you to save money on laundering and decreases the spread of contaminants.

Materials used in multi-use safety clothing can wear down over time with laundering and repeated use. However, disposable protective clothing is made of durable materials that do not experience the effects of reuse, transport, laundering, storage, and decontamination.

International Enviroguard has a variety of disposable protective clothing options for spray foam insulation installation and other SPF applications. Our selection of disposable spray suits offers chemical resistance and particulate protection while keeping workers more comfortable than traditional suits. Our spray foam safety gear has been tested against protection standards for repellency and penetration.