Hazmat suits are whole-body protective clothing designed to safeguard the wearer from dangerous substances and materials such as gases, toxins, or chemical agents. In this article we explain how hazmat suits work.
Hazmat is short for “hazardous material.” A hazmat suit is a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) for professionals in many industrial and healthcare industries who have to deal with dangerous substances as part of their job.
Are you researching how to buy a hazmat suit? If so, we recommend reading our Essential Hazmat Suit Buying Guide.
How Do Hazmat Suits Work?
Hazmat suits are made with several special materials that provide impregnability from the outside environment. If a hazmat suit does not meet the requirements for the correct hazmat suit level, then it is not considered effective under the conditions and must not be worn.
Hazmat suits protect the wearer from harmful particles, liquids, biological agents, and gases up to a certain level. This includes protection from viruses such as the coronavirus. However, hazmat suits are not entirely impenetrable in certain circumstances.
Hazmat suits are divided into 4 levels: A, B, C, and D. Each level has their own unique requirements, uses, and methods of protection to cover certain levels of risk.
For example, Level A suits include the following components. Each component is designed to fulfill a specific protective purpose. Together they define how the hazmat suit works.
- Full face Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the U.S.A. This covers the entire face and is worn independently (not attached) and underneath the suit. The SCBA apparatus provides the wearer with a constant flow of clean air separate from the environment.
- A two-way radio that provides outside communication with other team members (required for level A.)
- Additional safety steel-toe boots with shanks on the outside. This protect the feet and toes from falling objects, sharp objects and being run over by vehicles or equipment.
- Special chemical-resistant gloves. These protect the hands from harmful substances and abrasion. They are sealed to the arms of the suit.
- Optional flash fire protection using reflective outer coatings. These special fire-resistant coatings prevent the suit and wearer from being burned from exposure to an open flame or small gas or electrical fire.
- Face area is covered with a large visor with extended range of vision. The clear visor protects the facial area and provides clear vision.
- Zipped from the front or back using 1 long zipper that goes along the torso. The zipper is sealed to prevent outside contaminants from entering the suit.
- Hard hat, coveralls, and long underwear can be worn optionally underneath the suit. These protect the wearer from impacts, abrasion, heat and cold.
Materials Used for Hazmat Suits
Materials can be unique to the manufacturer based on proprietary technologies. Each part of a Hazmat suit can be made up of different materials, often in multiple layers.
Commonly used materials in hazmat suits include:
These materials are designed to stop fluids, gases, particles, and chemicals from penetrating. They are ideal for protective clothing such as hazmat suits.
Environments to Wear Hazmat Suits
Different working environments expose their own unique chemical, vapor, and liquid dangers for workers. Each suit level is designed for optimal protection while using in certain areas only. It is important to know which suits are effective in certain hazardous situations to stay protected.
Use in Chemical Warfare
Hazmat suits are effective during chemical warfare incidents that are non-nuclear related. Modern armies around the world include hazmat suit training exercises for soldiers as a result.
Chemical warfare hazmat suits are heavily sealed and coated to be impenetrable to gases, cyanide and other biological agents.
Use in Waste Disposal
Hazmat suits are effective for waste disposal areas such as city landfills, recycling, and chemical waste storage facilities.
Waste disposal hazmat suits are generally made of heavy flexible cloth, and may be breathable to ensure the wearer does not overhead. The primary goal is to keep semi-hazardous chemicals, dust, mold and rotting material off the wearer’s skin. The suit may include a respirator to filter out mold and noxious odors.
Use in Medical Environments
Laboratories and Hospitals
Hospitals are prime locations for dangerous chemical spills and the spreading of infectious biological agents. Thus, hazmat suits are often worn here. Also, many secure medical and scientific laboratories use hazmat suits for their employees during testing and product development.
Medical hazmat suits come in all levels, from basic nursing and orderly suits to full CDC-level hazmat suits.
Ebola Workers Rely on Hazmat Suits
Hazmat suits have proven to be effective during Ebola outbreaks in Africa for medical workers. However, they still may not be enough to prevent infection of the worker due to the microscopic and contagious nature of this threat.
Not for use in Nuclear Attack or Accidents
Hazmat suits are used at nuclear power plants and testing stations only to keep particles from being carried home by the worker.
However, no hazmat suit of any level will protect the wearer from radioactive fallout in the case of a nuclear attack or power-plant meltdown. It will only protect against small particles that could penetrate the suit or be inhaled. Only specially designed radiation protective gear can protect against radioactive fallout.
Not for Use During Volcanic Eruptions
During a volcanic eruption, wearers should not expect hazmat suits to protect them from falling debris, lava flows, or other super-heated particles resulting from a volcanic eruption. Only specially designed flame proof suits with full breathing apparatus will meet this purpose.
Not for Use During Fire Incidents
Hazmat suits are not entirely effective against fire damage, even with fire reflective material included. Suits worn by professional firemen are designed to handle flames and heat of a much higher level than hazmat suits due to inclusion of more advanced fire resistant materials.
For more information, read our post “What Jobs Require Hazmat Suits” here.
Different Organizations Have Different Hazmat Suit Requirements
Health facilities, organisations and agencies are often allowed to have their own protocols and procedures for using PPE and hazmat suits.
However, government agencies, such as OSHA and the NFPA, have mandatory requirements that every enterprise must follow regarding PPE and hazmat suits.
For more information, see our article on OSHA Hazmat Suit Requirements here.
How to Put Them On?
Putting on the full suit along with the PPE (goggles, gloves, boots, etc.) can take 10 minutes to half an hour and may require assistance. The suit can be worn over normal clothing underneath the gloves, sleeves, boots, and face masks. The hazmat suit is finally secured around ankles, wrists, neck, face, and the waist. Additional storm flaps can be closed over the zipper to secure it in place.
For more information see our post “A Simple Guide On How To Use a Hazmat Suit” here.
A hazmat suit offers impregnability from harmful environments for the wearer. A range of quality materials and specific design components are used to achieve a high degree of safety. We hope this article has given a good overview of how hazmat suits work.
Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree in Economics from U.C. Davis, is an active outdoorsman and spent years ensuring the safety of special needs children. Nick researches and tests workplace, industrial and safety products and provides advice on their safe use.