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Improving Worker Protection Through Standards Development: ASTM Committee F23 on Protective Clothing

by Jeffrey O. Stull

ASTM Committee F23 on Protective Clothing has a long and successful record of developing voluntary consensus standards. These standards serve to improve the well-being of workers across a broad range of occupations.

The committee’s formation in the mid-1970s was stimulated in part by the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Preventing worker contact with chemical carcinogens was the initial concern. In 1977, a group of users and producers of protective clothing met in Valley Forge, Pa., to discuss the creation of a new technical committee on protective clothing. The group established a scope and mission statement, thereby forming ASTM Committee F23 on Chemical Protective Clothing.

The first actual committee meeting was held Jan. 18-19, 1978, at ASTM International Headquarters, which were then in Philadelphia, Pa. Standard chemical and physical test methods for protective clothing were needed. Hence, chemical and physical subcommittees were established as well as a planning committee. In 1981, the committee’s first test method, F 739, was approved (see the sidebar). Today, F23 has jurisdiction over more than 40 standards for protective clothing, ranging from chemical, physical, and biological protection to chain saw and fire protection.

Membership on the committee has grown from about 50 in 1978 to more than 220 today. The founding members set a course that changed the protective clothing industry and how the world approached the use of clothing for worker protection. United States governmental agencies such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the Army, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration were active participants. The committee became the forum for technical discussions of protective clothing performance and evaluation; it initiated an international symposia series that continues today. F23 became a participant in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) long before globalization was recognized as being critical to commerce.

F23’s standards have resulted in new protective clothing products that are more resistant to chemical, physical and biological hazards and which offer comfort and less ergonomic stress. In addition, Sept. 11 and its aftermath clearly made evident the importance of our contributions, as society saw military personnel, firefighters and emergency responders wearing some of the latest protective clothing products. F23’s standards have direct applicability to the growing concern for protection from agents and weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism.

Overall, Committee F23 has contributed much to improve the safety and health of workers over the past 25 years. While technology, industry and the workforce will change in the future, there will always be a need for protective clothing. ASTM Committee F23 will continue to play a key role in minimizing contact with hazards and improving the safety and well-being of workers and the general population. From mines to hospitals to waste sites to agriculture to space missions, protective clothing enables human accomplishment. Committee F23 has a proud history and a compelling future.

Highlights in the History of Committee F23

Committee F23 has focused its attention on clothing that is used to protect against occupational hazards. These hazards may be physical, chemical, biological, or thermal in nature. The chemical protective clothing producers and users who organized F23 in 1978 were motivated by occupational health concerns because it was becoming increasingly apparent that protective clothing was not an impermeable barrier to all hazards in the workplace. With emphasis being placed on reducing and controlling chemical contacts, standard methods for evaluating the performance of protective clothing were needed. The first task of Committee F23 was to develop voluntary standard test methods for evaluating the performance of chemical protective clothing.

The committee worked for several years on a series of test methods encompassing the degradation, penetration and permeation resistance of materials to chemicals. Resistance to the thermal properties of molten metals became the next area where performance standards were developed for protective clothing. After numerous interlaboratory tests and balloting processes, three standard methods evolved. These included F 739, for measuring permeation resistance, F 903, for measuring penetration resistance, and F 955, for measuring thermal resistance of protective clothing to molten metals.

By this time the committee was gaining recognition and additional members were becoming involved in its activities. U.S. regulatory agencies and government groups — such as the EPA, NIOSH, OSHA, and the U. S. Coast Guard — were sending representatives to meetings. At this time, it became evident that the committee should expand to address concerns in several areas related not only to chemical and molten metal protection but other areas where the need for protective clothing existed.

After the first test methods were developed, Subcommittee F23.30 on Chemicals worked to provide tools to promote further the use of these test methods. F 1001 established a battery of chemicals from which to choose for chemical resistance testing, and has become the industry benchmark for claiming material barrier performance against chemicals. When the industry began to generate extensive chemical resistance, Classification F 1186 and Guide F 1194 created the chemical identification and report formatting needed. Finally, the overall test selection and reporting process for chemical protective clothing envisioned by Committee F23 was embodied in Guide F 1296.

With standards covering the evaluation of materials for chemical resistance completed, Committee F23 turned to the need to evaluate complete products, so a new subcommittee was established. Its first standard was F 1052 for pressure testing totally encapsulating chemical protective suits for inward leakage of vapors and gases. This standard, now a test method, is used in evaluating nearly every totally encapsulating suit manufactured in the United States and is also used by local hazardous materials teams for ascertaining the continuing performance of their suits. A related standard, F 1359, measured the leakage of liquids into entire clothing ensembles. F 1154 established a procedure for evaluating the comfort, fit, function, and integrity of chemical protective suits and ensembles using human test subjects.

Subcommittee F23.80 on Flame and Thermal developed Specification F 1002, which set requirements for flame and molten metal protective clothing. Test method F 1060 measures conductive heat transfer through insulative materials. Although originally developed under the Physical Subcommittee, F23.30, F 1358 provided a modified method for measuring the flame resistance of protective clothing, which was not primarily intended for flame or heat protection. The subcommittee also released F 1449 for the care and maintenance of flame and thermally protective clothing.

During the 1990s, the Chemical Subcommittee continued to make advances in developing and improving its existing standards and adding new standards. The permeation test method (F 739) underwent several changes in conjunction with interlaboratory testing to improve the method by which results were uniformly interpreted by test laboratories and included techniques for using other detection systems and determining method sensitivity. A battery of gases was added to F 1001 and alternative test protocols were created for conducting penetration testing (F 903). In addition, two new test methods were added – F 1383 for conducting intermittent contact permeation testing and F 1407, a field-type permeation test method.

To assist the healthcare industry with defining the barrier of medical clothing under OSHA’s then-new bloodborne pathogen standard, a new subcommittee on biological protection was established. This subcommittee created F23’s first emergency standards: ES 21 and ES 22 (since withdrawn and replaced by full-consensus standards F 1670 and F 1671, respectively). These two standards defined the basis for medical device claims for surgical gowns and drapes and were cited in other clothing standards where bloodborne hazards exist. Test Method F 1819 was later developed as a mechanical pressure method for ranking healthcare materials at levels below that demonstrated in F 1670.

Concurrently, Subcommittee F23.20 on Physical worked on a series of test methods and clothing specifications aimed at setting protection levels for protective footwear and chaps for use when working with chainsaws. Separate test methods (F 1414 and F 1458) were first established and then became part of specifications for footwear and leg protection items (F 1818 and F 1897). These standards were augmented by the development of test methods for puncture resistance (F 1342) and cut resistance (F 1790), improving on existing industry practice for the measurement of these clothing properties.

The Human Factors Subcommittee, started in the late 1980s, addressed growing concerns about the tradeoffs between the protection offered by the clothing and its impact on wearer comfort and function. Its first standard, Test Method F1291, provided a means for measuring the thermal insulation provided by clothing using a heated manikin. The committee is currently developing a standard for measuring the evaporative resistance of clothing systems using a sweating manikin. The committee also wrote Test Method F1868 and F2298 for measuring the thermal insulation and evaporative resistance of materials and material systems. All of these standards help manufacturers produce fabrics and garments that are both protective and comfortable to wear. Some clothing such as level A chemical protective suits inhibit the evaporation of sweat from the body surface, often causing the wearer to suffer from heat stress. Therefore, the use of personal cooling systems (e.g., ice vests, body suits containing tubes of circulating cold water) is on the increase. The committee is currently developing two standards for evaluating the effectiveness of personal cooling systems worn under protective clothing – one using a sweating manikin and one using human subjects. Practice F1731 was developed for ensuring consistent body measurements for sizing uniforms and other thermal hazard protective clothing. A new dexterity test method for gloves was also established in F2010.

An F23 subcommittee on protective clothing programs developed standards to address specific broad needs related to the protective clothing end user community. The subcommittee was later merged into F23.30 on chemical hazards. Practice F 1301 established a uniform means for labeling chemical protective clothing to permit ready identification by wearers. Practice F 1461 created a comprehensive approach for end users to establish a chemical protective clothing program. Practice F 2061 was developed to address procedures for care and maintenance of chemical protective clothing.

During the late 1990s, many of the subcommittees went through changes in direction. F23.40 on Biological focused much of its activity toward the area of medical facemasks. This included the development of a synthetic blood penetration resistance test specific to face masks (F 1862), a bacterial filtration test (F 2101), and a specification for face mask materials (F 2100).

Though its efforts to create a universally accepted thermal protective performance test were not realized, F23.80 on Flame and Thermal developed two new tests methods in the 1990s. The first involved a very sophisticated instrumented manikin test for evaluating protective garments against very high heat and flame exposures (F 1930). The second provided standardized procedures for conducting radiant heat resistance testing of clothing materials (F 1939).

While the Subcommittee on Particulates would eventually be dissolved, its members led the creation of Guide F 2053 for documenting particulate testing of protective clothing materials. Similarly, several task groups under Subcommittee F23.30 on Chemicals worked for years on test methods for evaluating clothing materials against pesticides. These efforts were realized with the development of Test Method F 2130 in 2000.

Throughout its years in developing standards, Committee F23 has maintained liaison with several groups, both in the United States and internationally. Many ASTM standards developed by Committee F23 are cited in clothing standards developed by other organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association. For several years, the U.S. government held meetings in conjunction with F23 meetings, seeking ways to cooperate on research and avoid duplication of effort. Committee F23 has also been a focal point for international research on protective clothing, particularly through its series of seven international symposia on the performance of protective clothing (see the list above).

In responding to industry needs and its own need to remain efficient, Committee F23 has reorganized several times with both the addition and dissolution of subcommittees. With some fall-off in membership and with a renewed focus on end item specifications, the committee is now organized among five technical committees and six administrative committees:

Technical Subcommittees
F23.20 – Physical Hazards
F23.30 – Chemical Hazards
F23.40 – Biological Hazards
F23.60 – Human Factors
F23.70 – Radiological
F23.80 – Flame and Thermal
Administrative Subcommittees
F23.90 – Executive
F23.91 – Editorial
F23.92 – Education
F23.93 – Publicity
F23.94 – Symposia
F23.95 – Planning
F23.96 – ISO Technical Advisory Group

While this history of Committee F23 has been recounted along the lines of technical accomplishments, the work of the administrative subcommittees should be noted. The Editorial Subcommittee is responsible for creating, supplementing, and maintaining the terminology standard (F 1494). The Education and Publicity Subcommittees have presented training programs related to protective clothing during F23 symposia.

The Symposia Subcommittee has been incredibly successful in arranging well-attended and informative symposia on protective clothing research and development. The first symposium was held in Raleigh, N.C., and helped to expand both the topics considered by Committee F23 as well as its membership. Subsequent symposia in Tampa, Fla.; San Diego, Calif.; Montreal, Quebec; San Francisco, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; and Seattle, Wash., have similarly provided wide exposure for Committee F23 through both the presentations and the Special Technical Publications that have resulted.

For the past decade, Committee F23 has participated in the activities of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and ISO. Committee F23 includes the Technical Advisory Group for ISO Technical Committee 94 Subcommittee 13 on Protective Clothing. In this role, Committee F23 members have promoted the acceptance of our consensus standards by ISO and the harmonization of our standards with those of national standards bodies. These efforts help bridge the differences between testing approaches and help U.S. businesses to be competitive worldwide.

The achievements of Committee F23 are the result of voluntary contributions from our committee members. Composed of individuals from varied backgrounds, education, training and experience, the committee has made significant contributions toward improving people’s safety on the job. The participation of F23’s members is often supported by their employers, to whom we are indebted.

There are many opportunities and challenges ahead for Committee F23. In particular, we can not overemphasize the need for training, education and communication for the standards already developed. Certainly, in a climate where some protective clothing technologies have matured, the committee must seek new areas of activity to both maintain membership and continue its contributions protection of individuals. In a more global economy, Committee F23 must also decide how it will position its standards and interact with other organizations that generally permit less participation than afforded by ASTM. Dealing with these new challenges will be at the forefront of Committee F23’s work through the next decades.

The vision for the future is to help humankind accomplish its goals safely with appropriate protective clothing that meets fair and necessary standards based on the best technical information available. Indeed, if protective clothing is the last line of defense, F23’s standards should be developed to give the best protection. //

Copyright 2004, ASTM International

This article is adapted from a 25-year history written by Jeffrey O. Stull. Additional contributions were made for the publication by Norman Henry and Elizabeth McCullough.

See the sidebar on new subcommittee on radiological hazards.