New guidelines will raise the standard of PPE cleaning and maintenance

Published: Thursday, 14th November 2019

The task of cleaning and maintaining firefighting garments is set to change with the introduction of a new set of British Standard guidelines. Simon Burnett-Boothroyd examines the issues involved, and their future impact. 

 

Cleaning and maintaining PPE for fire and rescue personnel is a subject that has been receiving increasing amounts of attention over recent years.  Fortunately, the days when firefighters viewed dirty garments and equipment as some sort of proof that they had been doing their job are now well behind us, and today’s forward-thinking fire and rescue organisations do a great job in understanding and emphasizing the need for PPE garments to be properly cleaned and maintained on a regular basis.

Their concern is understandable, given the fact that the day-to-day work of fire and rescue personnel can bring them into contact with many different types of potentially harmful substances, including carcinogens. While modern fires can involve traditional combustible materials such as wood, many new types of plastics and other materials may also now be present, not to mention electronic devices which may give off harmful particles as they burn. These new contaminants all pose fresh types of risk to our firefighters. They can sometimes be absorbed by the firefighter, as the rise in temperature inside the PPE increases the permeability of the skin, and the design and construction of the PPE garments must provide reliable and effective protection against this. However, those contaminants also have the ability to remain on the PPE garments, and potentially pose a threat long after the firefighter has left an incident.

Firefighter PPE Cleaning

Various research studies are being undertaken into this area, underlining the fact that the nature of the risks which firefighters face is changing, and that close attention must be paid to the issues of cleaning and maintenance if these risks are to be minimised. This is one of the reasons why PPE manufacturers should welcome the imminent arrival of a new British Standard – BS 8617 - which will provide clear guidelines on how this can be achieved.

Given the serious nature of the subject, it’s not surprising that the fire and rescue sector in the USA has had a similar standard in place for some time. NFPA 1851, which is itself currently being reviewed, governs the selection, care and maintenance of PPE, and some manufacturers such as ourselves have long used this as a benchmark against which we measure our own performance. Here in the UK, the lack of guidance is being redressed with the launch of BS 8617, which is the first standard of its kind to be introduced in Europe. It sets out procedures which, although not compulsory, providers of PPE cleaning and maintenance services should adhere to if they want to give their customers with the best possible service. 

BS 8617 covers a number of different cleaning and maintenance areas, such as operating methods, traceability and accountability, and together they serve to provide a clear and transparent route for service providers to follow.  Knowing that the more informed customers become about the new standard, the more likely they are to demand compliance, some service providers such as ourselves have long been working hard to ensure that we achieve these standards. Interestingly, the contents of BS 8617 are very wide-ranging, and because they provide an excellent benchmark against which operating standards can be measured, it would not be a surprise to see them used as the basis for similar guidelines covering other industries where the cleaning and maintenance of kit is a key consideration. 

As mentioned earlier, those PPE maintenance service providers such as ourselves who take this issue seriously are already working to the highest level, continuously raising the standard of both their own facilities and those of any laundry companies with whom they partner. Both we and our own partners have invested heavily in improving our laundry service capabilities, and by sharing our respective knowledge and experience we are able to create maintenance regimes that allow us to provide a service which customers know they can rely on with complete confidence.

PROVING THE PROCESS

PPE Guidelines for firefighter PPEAdherence to the new guidelines will certainly provide a very practical tool for customers to use when they are selecting a laundry service provider, but naturally there are other things they should also look out for. Any audited operating methods – whether to BS 8617 or NFPA 1851 standards – will provide a good basis for comparison, and indicate whether the levels of quality involved are sufficiently robust and reliable. Key areas for inclusion in the audit process should include a cleaning and maintenance process which follows an established routine. For example, the audit should clearly show that incoming PPE is carefully segregated. Any garments that are heavily soiled, and which may carry blood-borne pathogens or carcinogenic materials, must be separated at the earliest possible stage in the process from those that carry only loose surface dirt. The people who perform this operation must also be provided with the proper protection, and both sets of garments must be kept entirely separate until they are completely cleaned of their dirt and contaminants.

A decent service provider should also be able to demonstrate that all garments undergo intensive inspection and checking operations at various points of the process. This will help to pinpoint any faults or necessary repairs which were not initially obvious, and may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Washing and drying processes must also be carried out under carefully controlled conditions. If these stages are not monitored properly, or are unnecessarily aggressive, they can subject the garments to undue stress which will, eventually, adversely affect the length of their operational life. 

The ability to track any individual PPE garment throughout its operational life is another crucial requirement, and its one where the maintenance provider must be suitably equipped to play a vital role. They should be able to display a reliable and transparent tracking system which can pinpoint any garment, no matter where it is in the cleaning and maintenance process. Over time, this allows them to create an individual history for each garment, which clearly shows how many times, and in what ways, it has been cleaned and repaired. This information can be invaluable to the customer, who can use it when drawing up purchasing and replacement schedules for their PPE.

CLEAN BY DESIGN

Firefighter uniform - clean by designNot surprisingly, the design and manufacture of the PPE garments can have a significant influence on the effectiveness of any cleaning process, and customers should consider this aspect carefully.  Naturally, the first requirement of the garments is to provide an effective barrier against heat and contaminants, but the way in which they are cleaned and maintained should also play an important role in the creation of the garments, right from the earliest design stage.

The use of reflective tape on PPE garments is a good case in point. Many garments on the market have 2-3mm thick reflective tape which is sewn onto them. This tape is initially fairly stiff and unyielding, but the repeated bending and compression caused by everyday use can cause the tape to ‘give,’ creating small gaps between the tape and the surface it is sewn onto. The resulting crevices then allow potentially harmful contaminant particles to become trapped, and possibly missed by the cleaning process. This problem can be eliminated by the use of thermally-applied reflective strips. These are often less than 1 mm thick, and being far more flexible than sewn-on strips, they will not yield and create these crevices in the same way. However, their use and their benefit to the cleaning process, has to be considered right from the garment’s design stage.

This sort of attention to detail can also bring advantages when it comes to repairing a garment. While the laborious task of unpicking the stitching from a length of damaged sewn-on reflective tape can take time and add to the cost of any repair, thermally applied tape can be removed and replaced much more easily. This seemingly small detail can create significant time savings when dealing with large quantities of garments, and can help service providers such as ourselves provide laundry service turn-round times as short as 1 week.

The use of the traditional hook-and-loop fastenings is another example of an area where the effectiveness of cleaning procedures can be improved by proper garment design. Despite the fact that these fastening have numerous potential applications and many advantages to offer, some manufacturers such as ourselves are careful to limit their use to only the most appropriate situations. These fastenings can provide their own hiding places where particles of dirt and contamination can go unnoticed. By bearing this in mind when designing new garments, the number of those hiding places - and the potential for contaminants to be missed by the cleaning process - can be significantly reduced.

Combining proper garment design, manufacture and maintenance with the impact of standards such as BS 8617 is a very positive step towards raising raise the standards of the PPE kit which our fire and rescue services rely on, and that can only be a good thing for everyone involved, whether they be PPE manufacturers, laundry service providers or the end user.


Originally published in FIRE magazine.

Ballyclare holds the Royal Warrant for the supply of Specialist Fire Protective Clothing By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen through supplying firefighting suits to the Windsor Castle Fire Service.

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