When working with toxic or dangerous substances, having the right protection matters. In the United States, potentially hazardous materials are classified as HAZMAT, and there are many regulations regarding how they can be handled, transported, and properly disposed of. For workers, the best way to manage these substances is with a HAZMAT suit. This article outlines the various classifications related to HAZMAT suits and how they can provide sufficient protection for workers.
What Does HAZMAT Mean?
The term HAZMAT is a combination of the words hazardous (HAZ) and materials (MAT). These materials can pose any kind of physical or biological threat to people, wildlife, and the environment. Examples of hazardous materials that require a HAZMAT designation include:
- Toxic Chemicals and Chemical Hazards
- Nuclear Waste
- Industrial Pollution
- Infectious Diseases
Because there is such a broad range of hazardous materials, there are numerous categories related to these substances, which are regulated and controlled by the U.S. Department of Transportation . Some of these categories include:
- Non-Flammable Gasses
- Flammable Liquids (and Solids)
- Radioactive materials
- Corrosive substances
Each of these classifications is represented by a HAZMAT warning label. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is in charge of these categories because they oversee how hazardous materials can be collected and transported throughout the country.
What are the Different HAZMAT Protection Levels?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a four-tier system to determine the right level of protection for individuals. These tiers are labeled A through D, and they have specific rules and regulations. Here is a breakdown of each of these HAZMAT levels.
Level A HAZMAT
This is the highest protection level, meaning it is designed to safeguard against highly toxic or dangerous substances, including those that may be radioactive or biological (i.e., an infectious disease). In this case, the hazardous material poses a threat to the respiratory system, eyes, and skin. Because of this, individuals need to use the following personal protective equipment (PPE) to stay safe:
- Fully Encapsulated Chemical Protective Suit
- Positive Pressure Demand Full-Face Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA)
- Inner and Outer Chemical Resistant Gloves
- Chemical Resistant Safety Boots
As you'll notice, individuals must have a supply of oxygen and a Level A HAZMAT suit that can withstand chemical substances without breaking down. If a person were to come into contact with a corrosive material that penetrated the suit, it could pose a chemical burn risk. Because Level A is the most secure, it protects against both liquids and gases.
Level B HAZMAT
At first glance, both levels A and B are similar. However, the primary difference is that level B does not necessarily protect against gases and vapors. This means that gaseous substances could get into a protective suit. However, if they are not toxic or corrosive, it is not considered dangerous.
In this case, Level B HAZMAT suits protect against liquid chemicals and splashes. The protective garments required for Level B include:
- Hooded Chemical Protective Clothing
- Full or Half-Mask Air-Purifying Respirator
- Inner and Outer Chemical Resistant Gloves
- Safety Boots
Level D HAZMAT
As the lowest protection level, Level D does not require any protection of the eyes, lungs, or skin. This means that Level D can be used in situations where hazardous materials do not pose much of a splash or gas risk. While other levels require head-to-toe protection, Level D does not require that an individual be covered 100 percent.
A perfect example of a situation where HAZMAT Level D is needed is a construction site. PPE required at this level includes:
- Safety Boots
- Safety Goggles or Glasses
What is a HAZMAT Suit?
Each HAZMAT level requires a specific type of personal protective equipment. HAZMAT suits are designed to withstand various chemical, biological, and radioactive substances so individuals are adequately protected. Each suit is made for a unique application, so it can provide sufficient protection in that environment. For example, if workers are entering an area with radioactive materials, they use lead-lined suits that protect against radiation.
What are the Levels of HAZMAT Suits?
HAZMAT suit levels correspond to the four protection levels designated by the DOT.
- Level A Suits | The highest level of protection and require SCBA equipment
This suit protects against chemicals and airborne particles. Level A is designed to be used to safeguard one's eyes, lungs, and skin from liquids and gasses.
- Level B Suits | Protect against liquid splashes and require SCBA equipment
This suit level does not provide as much skin protection as Level A, but still protects against liquid splash.
- Level C Suits | Protect against liquid splashes and require an APR
At this stage, individuals do not need a self-contained breathing apparatus. In this case, any toxic materials in the air are low enough to avoid damage to the skin or eyes. However, an air-purifying respirator (APR) is necessary to filter any harmful elements from the lungs.
- Level D Suits | Lowest level of protection
In this case, there are no hazardous materials in the air, so there is no danger to the lungs or skin. This means a Level D suit does not need a breathing apparatus. However, eye protection is still required as a safeguard against splashes or flying objects.
Which Industries Typically Use HAZMAT Protective Apparel?
Hazardous materials are present on many job sites, which means that workers from numerous industries require HAZMAT suits of varying levels. Here are some of the most common industries where this kind of PPE is necessary:
- Construction Workers - Some construction materials are corrosive or toxic, and workers can be exposed to projectiles, such as falling debris. Construction sites can also create high levels of dust and particulate levels, which are harmful when inhaled (silica dust).
- Healthcare Workers - Medical staff are sometimes exposed to infectious diseases or other pathogens. While standard PPE, such as scrubs, is often sufficient, some workers may require a HAZMAT suit to protect against biological or airborne substances. For example, a HAZMAT suit is required when working around highly infectious diseases or bloodborne pathogens like HIV.
- Firefighters - When fighting a fire, smoke and other toxic chemicals are released and can be harmful if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Firefighters need to protect their eyes, lungs, and skin while working to help prevent dangerous health issues.
- Crime Scene Investigators - Not only can crime scenes have potentially hazardous materials like blood or bloodborne pathogens, but investigators need to maintain the integrity of the environment. To do that, they often use HAZMAT suits to ensure that they do not contaminate evidence.
- Chemical Plant Workers - When working around highly toxic chemicals, it's critical to avoid skin and fume exposure. In most cases, workers will use Level D HAZMAT suits unless substances are gaseous. Gaseous substances require Level A protection.
- Toxic Waste Cleanup - Whenever there is a chemical spill, workers will go into the area to contain and dispose of the hazardous materials. In some cases, highly toxic substances may require Level A protection if they are airborne. Working in blackwater environments (sewage) also requires HAZMAT protection against biological substances.
What are the Emergency Response Levels for HAZMAT-Related Situations?
Whenever hazardous materials are present, it's crucial to have the right response. For example, reacting to a chemical spill is much different than reacting to the outbreak of a highly infectious airborne disease. To ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) created three levels of emergency response.
- Level 1 - This is the lowest response level as it poses the least risk to the public and the environment. In this case, the hazardous materials can be contained, extinguished, or abated using readily available materials and resources. An example of a level 1 situation could be a structural fire.
- Level 2 - In this instance, the hazardous materials are not easily contained and may require involvement from state and federal government agencies to clean up and manage. The threat to the public and the environment is more severe and potentially long-lasting. An example could be a chemical spill or the outbreak of an infectious disease.
- Level 3 - As the highest threat level, these situations require interagency cooperation between state, local, and federal groups. The immediate and long-term damage to the public and the environment could be catastrophic. An example of a level 3 scenario could be a nuclear disaster with radioactive fallout in the surrounding area.
HAZMAT Suit Manufacturers: HAZMAT Suit Selection Guide
A hazmat suit should be chosen based on the environment, application, and potential hazards identified on-site. However, it is the responsibility of the user to review all test data and determine if it suits the environments and chemicals found on-site.
Select a manufacturer that allows you to review available data and verify the suit satisfies its intended use and meets industry standards. Data should reflect critical tests such as permeation resistance and breakthrough time for liquids.
International Enviroguard is a manufacturer of HAZMAT suits that exceed industry standards and are rated for all four protection levels. Please contact us for our test data, view our HAZMAT suits below, or browse our HAZMAT suits on Amazon.