Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for Emergency Response Workers

Depending upon the type of disaster, emergency first responders and workers need a range of personal protective equipment to keep them safe from any number of hazards. Disaster first responders could face potential hazards from oil and chemicals, bacteria and other biohazards, contaminated water, mold, debris, unstable work surfaces, and electrical lines.

Personal protective equipment, commonly referred to as “PPE”, is equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical, or other hazards. Personal protective equipment may include items such as gloves, safety glasses and shoes, earplugs or muffs, hard hats, respirators, or coveralls, vests and full body suits.

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Selecting PPE for Emergency Response Workers

In selecting PPE for workers, employers should match the PPE to a worker’s specific job tasks and working conditions. Select PPE based on a thorough hazard assessment at the worksite.

  • Consider the durability of PPE materials, such as tear resistance and seam strength, in relation to the worker’s tasks.
  • Evaluate other aspects of PPE use, including its impact on heat stress, length of time a worker is able to wear a specific combination of equipment, the physical condition of the worker, demands of the specific work activity, and any effects on worker mobility or dexterity.
  • In some cases, layers of PPE may be necessary to provide sufficient protection.

Four Levels of PPE

Combinations or ensembles of PPE are classified generally into four levels, ranging from the most protective (Level A) to the least protective (Level D).

Each level of PPE, described below and detailed in Appendix B of the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard (29 CFR 1910.120), consists of a combination of protective equipment and clothing that help reduce respiratory, eye, skin, and other types of exposures.

Level A protection is required when the greatest potential for exposure to hazards exists, and when the greatest level of skin, respiratory, and eye protection is required. Examples of Level A clothing and equipment include:

  • positive pressure, full face-piece self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or positive pressure supplied air respirator with escape SCBA;
  • totally encapsulated chemical- and vapor-protective suit;
  • inner and outer chemical-resistant gloves; and
  • disposable protective suit, gloves, and boots.

Level B protection is required under circumstances requiring the highest level of respiratory protection, with lesser level of skin protection. At most abandoned outdoor hazardous waste sites, ambient atmospheric vapors or gas levels have not approached sufficiently high concentrations to warrant level A protection. Examples of Level B protection include:

  • positive pressure, full face-piece self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or positive pressure supplied air respirator with escape SCBA;
  • inner and outer chemical-resistant gloves;
  • face shield;
  • hooded chemical resistant clothing;
  • coveralls; and
  • outer chemical-resistant boots.

Level C protection is required when the concentration and type of airborne substances is known and the criteria for using air purifying respirators is met. Typical Level C equipment includes:

  • full-face air purifying respirators;
  • inner and outer chemical-resistant gloves;
  • hard hat;
  • escape mask; and
  • disposable chemical-resistant outer boots.

Level D protection is the minimum protection required. Level D protection may be sufficient when no contaminants are present or work operations preclude splashes, immersion, or the potential for unexpected inhalation or contact with hazardous levels of chemicals. Appropriate Level D protective equipment may include:

  • gloves;
  • coveralls;
  • safety glasses;
  • face shield; and
  • chemical-resistant, steel-toe boots or shoes.

While these are general guidelines for typical equipment to be used in certain circumstances, other combinations of protective equipment may be more appropriate, depending upon specific site characteristics.

OSHA Federal Regulations for PPE

This section highlights OSHA standards, Federal Register notices (rules and proposed rules), directives (instruction to OSHA staff), and letters of interpretation (official letters of interpretation of the standards) related to PPE.

General Industry (29 CFR 1910)

Shipyard Employment (29 CFR 1915)

Marine Terminals (29 CFR 1917)

Longshoring (29 CFR 1918)