Why PPE manufacturers need to clean up their act

Providing firefighters with proper protection has always been a major priority for PPE manufacturers, but in today’s market, safe and effective cleaning of firefighter kit is playing an ever-increasing role in achieving that aim. There are various reasons for this, including the need to extend the working life of high-value PPE equipment, and to provide better overall protection for the wearer.

There is a growing body of research which focusses on the latter of these two drivers, and specifically, the need to protect against the harmful and sometimes carcinogenic materials which fire crews may encounter. Firefighting has always involved contact with contaminants, but modern fires can include the combustion of fire-retardant materials, plastics and electronic devices which release dangerous chemicals that can contaminate the firefighter’s PPE.



Wherever it is appropriate, using thermally-applied reflective strips rather than the thick sewn-on alternatives helps eliminate cracks and crevices where contaminant particles may become trapped


A Standard Approach

While garment design and manufacturing techniques are essential in creating a reliable contaminant barrier, the effective laundering of PPE garments is equally important, But surprisingly, there is no current national or European standard governing this area. Such a standard – NFPA 1851 – does exist in the USA, and we at Ballyclare use this as the benchmark for our own cleaning and maintenance services, whether provided from our own in-house facilities or one of our carefully selected laundry service partners.

However, that situation will soon change as the UK looks to adopt a forthcoming BS standard on cleaning and maintenance. This lays fresh guidelines for PPE laundry services, and as it will be the first standard of its type in Europe, it is likely that other European countries will eventually adopt similar rules, especially as manufacturers such as ourselves promote a consistent approach throughout Europe in an effort to further raise standards.

This highlights the fact that the days when dirty PPE was somehow seen as a badge of honour amongst firefighters have long gone, and PPE laundry providers must work extremely hard to satisfy customer needs. This has led some providers such as ourselves to extend the laundry process back to the scene of the fire, by providing crews with coveralls which they can change into immediately after the fire. This allows them to remove their contaminated PPE as quickly as possible, and helps maintain a cleaner, healthier environment inside the vehicles they use. This sort of activity also adds value for the customer by helping to extend the operational life of their PPE.

Careful Control

Fortunately, some manufacturers have invested heavily in creating the sort of high standard laundry services which today’s customers demand. Those customers often look for a laundry provider who is audited according to NFPA 185, which ensures that their cleaning and maintenance operations follow proven procedures. This will include measures such as the careful inspection of garments on arrival, separating them according to their degree of soiling, and ensuring that heavily contaminated items are only handled by people equipped with proper protection.

Washing and drying must also be carefully controlled so that garments are not subject to unnecessary stresses, and some service providers like ourselves are actively involved in investigating new ways to achieve this. All garments must also undergo intensive inspection at various stages of the process to identify any necessary repairs which were not initially obvious. The laundry provider should also have a rigorous system which tracks each garment and creates an individual history which the customer can use to aid their future PPE purchasing activities.



Some laundry providers have begun providing crews with coveralls which they can change into before they leave the scene of a fire
(Photo courtesy of Adrian Tadych)


A Clean Design

The effectiveness of any laundry process is influenced by a garment’s design and manufacture, so sourcing PPE from a manufacturer such as ourselves who recognises this is a wise step. For example, we only use the traditional hook-and-loop fastenings sparingly as they can create crevices where contaminant particles can hide. Also, wherever appropriate we use new technologies such as thermally-applied reflective strips rather than the thick sewn-on alternative, as repeated bending and compression of the latter can create unwanted gaps between the tape and the garment surface which make contaminants hard to remove. This sort of intelligent design can also speed up the turn-round time for laundry services.

As customer demands become more stringent and new standards begin to emerge, the issue of more effective laundry and maintenance services is set to grow in the future. The industry will have to pay far more attention to it than has previously been the case, and it is only those manufacturers and service providers who are already experienced and focussed on this area that will be able to satisfy those customer requirements.

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