Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Health & Safety Committee Conservation Wiki
Copyright: 2013. The Health & Safety Wiki pages are a publication of the Health & Safety Committee of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
Disclaimer: Some of the information included on this page may be out of date, particularly with regard to toxicological data and regulatory standards. Also, because new information on safety issues is continually published, resources outside of AIC should be consulted for more specific information.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) for conservators refers to protective gear, garments or equipment used to protect the conservator from injury or exposure. PPE generally protects only the user and, therefore, should be used in conjunction with other health and safety measures to ensure a safe working environment.
Some PPE such as Tyvek suits, most gloves, and N-95 respirators are disposable. Reuse of these PPE leads to cross-contamination and reduces their efficacy. To avoid excess waste, plan tasks ahead and use disposable PPE only when necessary. If you do use disposable PPE, start with a fresh one each day (or each use), and when in doubt, THROW IT OUT!
The Health & Safety Committee's Quick PPE Guide, is a convenient reference to look up the required PPE for a specific chemical, material, or piece of equipment commonly used by conservators.
Glove selection should relate to the particular task or process, taking into consideration the types of tools and solvents that will be used during treatment.
For chemical use, most disposable gloves offer splash protection and direct contact with chemicals is to be avoided. Heavier weight, reusable gloves will provide additional protection but solvents can be aggressive to glove materials. The U.S. Department of Energy (Occupational Safety and Health Technical Reference Manual) has a Chemical Resistance Selection Chart for Protective Gloves, which rates various gloves for specific chemicals (Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor) and will help you select the most appropriate gloves.
Butyl gloves are made of a synthetic rubber and protect against a wide variety of chemicals. They also resist oxidation, ozone corrosion and abrasion, and remain flexible at low temperatures.
- Use for: peroxide, rocket fuels, highly corrosive acids (nitric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrofluoric acid and red-fuming nitric acid), strong bases, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters and nitrocompounds.
- Avoid: aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons and halogenated solvents.
Natural (latex) rubber gloves are comfortable to wear, inexpensive and readily available. They feature outstanding tensile strength, elasticity and temperature resistance. Latex gloves have caused allergic reactions in some individuals.
- Use for: water solutions of acids, alkalis, salts and ketones.
Neoprene gloves are made of synthetic rubber and offer good pliability, finger dexterity, high density and tear resistance.
- Use for: hydraulic fluids, gasoline, alcohols, organic acids and alkalis.
Nitrile gloves provide dexterity and sensitivity, while standing up to heavy use even after prolonged exposure to substances that cause other gloves to deteriorate.
- Use for: chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, oils, greases, acids, caustics and alcohols.
- Avoid: strong oxidizing agents, aromatic solvents, ketones and acetates.
Polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) gloves provide good resistance to abrasion and are inexpensive making them a good choice for protection against soiling and low hazard chemicals, however, plasticizers in the gloves may contaminate solvents.
- Use for: acids, bases, oils, fats, peroxides, and amines
- Avoid: most organic solvents, ketones, and aromatic solvents
Leather, Canvas or Metal Mesh Gloves
Fabric and Coated Fabric Gloves
Care of Protective Gloves
Suitable eye and face protection should be designed for and protect against a specific hazard, be comfortable and fit properly, not restrict vision and movement, be durable and easy to clean, and allow for unrestricted functioning of any other required PPE. Types of eye protection include spectacle-type glasses, goggles, and welding and full face shields.
Chemical resistant eyewear should be tight-fitting and completely cover the eyes, eye sockets and the facial area immediately surrounding the eyes and provide protection splashes. Examples of eyewear that protect against potential splashes or sprays of hazardous liquids are goggles and full face shields.
Eyewear should be made from impact-resistant materials and can include spectacle type glasses, tight fitting goggles, and welding masks. Full face shields will not provide adequate protection against impact hazards.
Appropriate eye protection should be worn if there is a risk for exposure to harmful light radiation such as infrared, ultraviolet, or intense radiant light. Welding shields protect eyes from burns caused by infrared or intense radiant light and some face shields, spectacles and goggles block ultraviolet radiation or are polarized to reduce glare.
Not sure if your eyewear will filter UV light? Try holding them up against something that fluoresces under UV light (such as a piece of white paper). The paper should not fluoresce where the light is passed through the lenses.
Clothing & Suits
When selecting a respirator identify and evaluate the hazard. Your respirator will need different types of filters, cartridges, or canisters depending on the type and amount of airborne contaminant in your workplace. For example, respirators that have particulate filters will not protect you against gases, vapors and the non-particulate components of fumes, mists, fogs, smoke and sprays. Also consider whether the hazard has any additional characteristics that may affect the type of respirator selected. For example, does the hazard irritate the eyes? Do you need splash and spray protection as well as eye protection? If so, you will need a full facepiece respirator or some type of eye protection. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of respirator, so it's important that you select a type that's best suited for your work setting and the hazards.
The Health & Safety Committees' publication A Conservator's Guide to Respiratory Protection, provides more detailed information on selecting and using a respirator. Also visit the respirator wiki page.
The two main types of respirators are air-purifying and atmosphere-supplying, which can be further classified as tight or loose-fitting.
These respirators use filters, cartridges, or canisters to remove contaminants from the air you breathe.
These respirators provide you with clean air from an uncontaminated source. If the work atmosphere lacks sufficient oxygen (oxygen-deficient or contaminated to the point of being immediately dangerous to life or health) or "IDLH," only atmosphere-supplying respirators, such as an airline respirator or a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) can be used.
The respirators require a tight seal between the respirator and the face and/or neck of the respirator user in order to work properly. If the respirator's seal leaks, contaminated air will be pulled into the facepiece and can be breathed in. Therefore, anything that interferes with the respirator seal is not permitted when using this type of respirator. This could include facial hair, earrings, head scarves, wigs, and facial piercings.
You must be fit tested with the tight-fitting respirator selected for your use. Fit testing is done to be sure that the respirator's facepiece fits your face. You must be fit tested before you use your respirator for the first time. You must also be re-tested at least every 12 months to be sure that your respirator continues to fit your face.
These respirators do not depend on a tight seal with the face to provide protection. Therefore, they do not need to be fit tested.