Selecting the Proper Chemical Protective Ensemble and Respirator

This video, from the U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA, briefly reviews the different types of respirators workers might use in the workplace, while also discussing various employer obligations.

Prior to purchasing chemical protective ensembles, an organization’s particular mission or intended role during a hazardous materials release should first be defined. Next, a thorough search and subsequent assessment of the proper chemical protective ensemble should then be undertaken. Additionally, the results of a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis should be used to identify any specific threats posed by hazardous materials in the local community prior to any purchase(s). These measures will help ensure that the procurement process is not hurried, and that all equipment purchased is rated and approved for the hazardous materials most likely to be encountered.

Organizations should avoid purchasing a particular ensemble simply based on price alone because suits and the other items that make up the chemical protective ensemble that are lower in price often times do not provide adequate protection for all the hazards that may be encountered. It is recommended to check a permeation rate table prior to purchase. Doing so will ensure the organization has chosen the correct suit based on available, independent data, not simply a suit manufacturer’s claims.

PPE technology and capabilities research can be performed quickly by referring to NIOSH or NFPA test data, but should only be conducted by individuals qualified in the field of hazardous materials. OSHA defines “Qualified Person” as, “a person with specific training, knowledge and experience in the area for which the person has the responsibility and the authority to control.”1 After researching all the organizational-appropriate and commercially available PPE, discussions between manufacturers’ sales representatives and those responsible for the PPE program should occur to ensure the specific needs of that response organization are best met. Be sure to ask the suit manufacturer to provide chemical permeation data results. Over 280 different chemicals have been tested using this data.

Examples of questions to answer before the start of the equipment procurement process include:

  • What will our organization’s role be in a hazardous materials event?
  • What specific hazards or threats could impact our community or organization?
  • What kind of chemicals can we be expected to work with or around?
  • In what concentrations or volumes are these chemicals encountered?
  • Will we be working in confined spaces or in oxygen deficient environments?
  • How long should we expect to work in a hazardous materials environment?
  • Will our focus be on decontamination operations only?

Once you and your organization answer these questions, invite vendors in to discuss how their PPE will help you meet your specific needs.

No chemical resistant PPE ensemble currently in production is impervious to all of the world’s most hazardous materials. With any level of chemical protective suit, it is critical to identify the material’s chemical break-through time prior to deciding if the suit is right for the organization’s needs. This break-through time will establish the protection factor for the various pieces of a chemical protective ensemble. Note: In general, the more resistant the suit is to hazardous chemicals, the higher the cost. An extensive, detailed catalog containing the vast majority of chemical protective clothing products available in the U.S. can be found in the Department National Institute of Justice Guide 102-00, a guide for the selection of PPE for emergency first responders.

Regardless of the level of chemical protective suit, the suit’s permeation rate and breakthrough time to known/tested chemicals must be identified to ensure responder safety. According a well-known manufacturer of PPE, these terms are defined as follows:

  • Permeation rate: A permeation rate indicates the mass of the chemical in micrograms, which can be transferred through one square centimeter of the fabric in one minute.
  • Breakthrough detection time (actual breakthrough time): The breakthrough detection time or actual breakthrough time is the time elapsed between initial contact of the chemical with the outside surface of the protective clothing fabric and its detection at the inside surface. Actual breakthrough has taken place when the minimum detectable permeation rate has been reached. A breakthrough detection time of more than 480 minutes indicates that the challenge chemical did not reach the minimum detectable permeation rate during the test time of 480 minutes.2

Do you have questions or concerns regarding NIOSH-approved PPE?
The CDC and NIOSH Need Your Help! Click here or call 1-888-654-2294 to submit your PPE concerns regarding the potential barriers to the proper selection and use of PPE.

Looking for PPE approved by NIOSH?
Click here for the CDC’s Certified Equipment List, which will easily and quickly allow you to look up all CDC/NIOSH-approved PPE.

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1 OSHA Website. (2005, April) Retrieved from:

2 Dupont Website (n.d.) DuPont Permeation Guide. Retrieved from: