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Article # 3204

No Standard? No Problem. (Protective Performance Thrives In the Vacuum.)
Courtesy of : Kappler
Written by: Todd R. Carroll

Todd Carroll is Senior Engineer, Research & Development for Kappler Protective Apparel & Fabrics. He also serves as Chairman of the ISEA’s Safety Wearing Apparel Group.

Perhaps nothing is as visible in the world of PPE as the lowly white coverall. Used in virtually every industry -- from custodial and maintenance jobs to critical environments – the disposable coverall has become synonymous with “protection”. Ironically, the one product that visually connotes the very idea of safety is diminished in its effectiveness because of two realities: Price commoditization and product misuse.

The latter subject is being addressed, albeit slowly, by an effort to fill the vacuum created by the lack of a true performance-based OSHA standard for protective clothing. Without such standard, protective clothing users are faced with a confusing array of products and no easy way to choose the best coverall (or lab coat or apron) for the job.

The International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) is working to complete a comprehensive performance standard (ANSI/ISEA 103-Draft) to aid users in complying with 29 CFR 1910.132 (which requires only “appropriate protection”). And a concurrent effort is underway on the international front by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), with the ISEA draft currently balloting as ISO/CD 16602. If successful, the ISO and ANSI standards ultimately would combine with the previous effort of the Europe’s CEN standards, serving to harmonize the testing, labeling, and certification of protective clothing on global basis. However, the wheels of standardization move slowly, and it will be several years at best before protective clothing users in the USA will have the luxury of a standard to aid their decisions.

In the meanwhile, the issue of price commoditization will continue to be the driving force in protective coveralls and their ilk. And so, protective clothing users find themselves focused on marketing issues -- instead of technical merits -- as way to understand what products are available, at what cost, and why workers are often left underprotected or unnecessarily uncomfortable.

Not only have market pressures forced end-users an “all-coveralls-are-the-same-so-go-cheap” mentality, but the lack of a proper OSHA standard for protective clothing means that disposable coveralls are routinely worn in inappropriate work scenarios. The compounded upshot of this double-edged sword is that workers often are issued the least expensive coverall for hazards and situations beyond the performance capability of the garment.

Fortunately fabric technology is once again rising to the occasion, giving workers the protection they need at a price the market will bear. Thanks to continued advances in microporous fabrics, higher performance at a reduced cost is not only possible – it’s happening in a way that allows each player in the supply chain (fabric producer, garment converter, and distributor) to actually improve the bottom line while delivering more benefits to the enduser. The market works, as the saying goes, and today’s protective clothing wearer is the beneficiary of this advance in fabric technology.

To fully appreciate this phenomenon that is redefining today’s protective coverall market, it is helpful to understand the products that are available and the reasons for so much price pressure. As companies streamline their operations, protective clothing budgets have come under renewed scrutiny. This has forced health and safety professionals to review and optimize their inventories of PPE, sourcing multi-functional garments that can be used for more than one application within and between different facilities.

One sector of the protective clothing market that has been greatly affected by this shift is the low-end coverall market. This sector represents the lion's share of the protective garments used, and involves users in a vast array of industries.

Historically designed to offer protection from dust, dirt, and grime, these so-called "paper suits" (they’re actually poly-resin based) have dominated the industrial arena for years. The primary materials of construction have been spun-bonded polypropylene (SBPP), spunbonded-melt blown-spunbonded (SMS) polypropylene, and nonwoven polyethylene. Used in numerous applications such as asbestos abatement, paint spraying, dry chemical packaging, milling operations, pesticide application, foundry work, and filter plate change-outs in catalyst towers, millions of these disposable suits have been and continue to be misused each month. Traditional coveralls are designed primarily for low risk exposures to non-hazardous chemicals, specifically particulates. Traditional fabrics offer little if any resistance to many of the common industrial chemicals such as greases, oils, fuels, paints, and lubricants. Historically, it was not uncommon for a general maintenance worker to wear one of these coveralls all day only to go home with soiled street clothing. This misuse of protective clothing was certainly not intended or malicious; it is an unfortunate result of insufficient product choices and a lack of an OSHA performance standard.

The first attempts to improve barrier in a low-cost coverall came in the 1970s and '80s with the introduction of polyurethane and nylon coated nonwovens. While these materials offered dramatic improvements in splash resistance, the improvements came at a price tag too high for general industrial users. The 1990s saw the next major push to elevate the performance of the disposable coverall with the introduction of breathable microporous films laminated to nonwovens. Borrowed from the disposable diaper industry, this technology introduced a fabric that would offer superior particulate resistance, limited chemical splash resistance, and improved comfort via higher moisture vapor transmission rates (MVTR). These microporous fabrics have penetrated global markets under the trade names Pro/Shield® 2 (Kappler), Propore® (3M), KleenGuard®Ultra (Kimberly-Clark), and others. While industry embraced the concept of microporosity and the marked improvement in protection, the cost remained too high to move the majority of those who needed better barrier away from traditional fabrics.

Recent breakthroughs by leading fabric manufacturers have taken microporous technology to the next level, truly shifting the paradigm and solving at last the dilemma created by the demand for higher performance but at a low cost. Again driven by the price-competitive disposable diaper industry, new fabrics are now available that offer higher chemical resistance at well below the price point of their traditional counterparts.

This new class of multi-functional fabrics combines microporous coatings with nonwovens, a major advance over the film-to-fabric lamination techniques that proved too costly for widespread acceptance. This evolution of microporous technology has resulted in revolutionary alternatives to traditional industrial fabrics, with users of protective coveralls getting higher, true liquid-proof protection while reducing per-garment costs. The first product out of the box utilizing this new, patented technology is called NexGenTM, marketed by Kappler Protective Apparel & Fabrics. As the leading innovator in microporous technology for protective clothing applications, Kappler has seen virtual 100% acceptance of these high-performance, low-cost products as users realize their collective wish has been granted.

How does this next generation of microporous fabrics perform? The table details a number of common industrial chemicals and agents found in the work place. This table compares the chemical penetration resistance  (according to ASTM F903) of the major traditional fabrics and the new microporous coated fabrics. F903 is a visual test that detects chemical penetration through a material after a 1-hour exposure. During the test, a pressure of 2 psi is applied to the chemical for 1 minute and the remaining 59 minutes is held at ambient pressure. Any visual sign of chemical transport through the fabric is reported as a failure. The results clearly illustrate the higher protection offered by the new microporous fabrics, which also provide an additional benefit of being more cloth-like which enhances worker comfort.

As the table shows, these major advances in microporous fabric technology allow for a protective garment that will withstand liquid and aerosol hazards – long the Achilles’ Heel of traditional fabrics. Combine that quantum leap with the added benefits of reduced cost and cloth-like softness, and it’s easy to see that protective coverall users can finally have their cake and eat it, too. While the absence of a true OSHA standard is still a problem, having available a low-cost, high-barrier product will go a long way toward filling a critical void. Even in the vacuum left by OSHA -- and in a PPE market dominated by pricing pressures – the odds for better worker protection are much improved.

TABLE 1. Chemical Penetration Resistance (ASTM F903)

Chemical SBPP SMS Nonwoven PE Microporouscoated
Bleach (4%)
fail fail fail pass
Diazinon(4 oz/gal) fail fail fail pass
Hydraulic jack oil fail fail fail pass
Isocyanate based
paint hardener
fail fail fail pass
40W motor oil fail fail fail pass
fail fail fail pass
Blood fail fail fail pass