HAZMAT Suit Levels: How Many Are There?

hazmat suit levels

When the EPA was charged with cleaning up hazardous waste dumps and regulating the safe disposal of hazardous materials, they realized right away that they'd need to protect the people on the ground.

Protective gear isn't in the EPA's job description, so they asked OSHA for help. OSHA already had experience with setting standards for personal protective equipment (PPE), but they called on other experts like the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for their expertise on chemical protective clothing.

Together, these organizations created the standards for different levels of HazMat suits, still in use today.

How Many Levels of Full-Body Protective Clothing Are There?

OSHA defines four levels of full-body HazMat protection. Level A is the most protective and Level D is the least protective. The regulations related to HazMat PPE levels are found under §1910.120 Appendix B.

However, choosing full-body protective gear for hazardous materials doesn't work like a simple checklist. The regulations set the minimum required protections for a situation. Employers have to meet these requirements, but they're also required to tailor HazMat PPE to the specific situation and hazardous material that workers will encounter.

To be OSHA compliant, the level of protection offered by a HazMat suit must provide adequate protection for the wearer from anticipated physical, chemical, and biological hazards.

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Level A HazMat Suit

When you're working with or around hazardous materials that can cause the most damage to the skin, eyes, or respiratory system, OSHA requires employers to equip you with a HazMat Level A suit.

What Conditions Require Level A HazMat Protection?

Level A HazMat suits should be used when:

  • You've identified a hazardous substance that requires the highest level of protection for the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. The decision of whether something "requires the highest level of protection" may be based on either:
    • A high concentration (measured or potential) of atmospheric vapors, gases, or particulates, OR
    • Site operations and work functions that involve a high potential for splash, immersion, or exposure to unexpected vapors, gases, or particulates that are harmful to (or capable of being absorbed by) the skin.
  • You know or suspect that substances with a high degree of hazard to the skin are present, and skin contact is possible.
  • Work must be done in a confined, poorly ventilated area, and you haven't ruled out that the conditions requiring Level A PPE will be present.

Who Uses Level A PPE?

Level A PPE is cumbersome and an SCBA limits the amount of time you can work, so it's reserved for situations that call for an extreme level of protection.

You need Level A protection for any work that involves hazardous chemicals known or suspected to cause skin toxicity, as well as those that cause cancer and can be absorbed through the skin. Level A is also the only suitable protection from toxic or corrosive chemical vapors and gases.

Other uses for a Level A HazMat suit include workers entering certain permit-required confined spaces healthcare professionals trying to contain a highly infectious disease, and workers at risk of radiation exposure at nuclear power plants.

What Equipment is Required for Level A Protection?

Level A PPE must include a:

  • NIOSH-approved positive-pressure, full face-piece SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) OR a positive-pressure supplied-air respirator with escape SCBA
  • Totally-encapsulating chemical- and vapor-protective suit
  • Inner chemical-resistant gloves
  • Outer chemical-resistant gloves
  • Chemical-resistant safety boots with a steel toe and shank
  • Disposable protective suit, gloves, and boots (which may be worn over the totally-encapsulating suit, depending on construction)

If the conditions call for it, the following elements can be added to a Level A suit for HazMat for extra protection:

  • Coveralls
  • Long underwear
  • In-suit cooling system
  • Hard hat (worn under the suit)
  • Face shield

Level B HazMat Suit

Workers need a Level B HazMat suit when the highest level of respiratory protection is necessary, but skin protection is less of a concern.

When this is the case, employers need to supply the same SCBA equipment as Level A, but the body covering requirements are a bit more relaxed.

What Conditions Require Level B HazMat Protection?

Level A HazMat suits should be used when:

  • The atmosphere contains less than 19.5% oxygen.
  • You've identified a type of substance that presents a severe inhalation hazard but not a severe skin hazard, in concentrations that are immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH).
  • You've detected incompletely identified vapors or gases with a direct-reading organic vapor detection instrument, but they're not suspected of containing high levels of chemicals harmful to (or capable of being absorbed by) the skin.

All of these conditions go beyond the protection that an air-purifying respirator can offer, so you need a self-contained source of safe, breathable air.

Who Uses Level B PPE?

Level B HazMat suits are typically used during the initial on-site characterization and analysis of an outdoor hazardous waste site. According to the NIH, initial site entry should use Level B protection at a minimum.

Level B PPE provides splash protection but no protection against chemical vapors or gases. That means it's inappropriate for any situation where those present a hazard.

What Equipment is Required for Level B Protection?

Level B PPE must include:

  • A NIOSH-approved positive-pressure, full face-piece SCBA OR a positive-pressure supplied-air respirator with escape SCBA
  • Hooded chemical-resistant clothing, which may be composed of
    • Overalls and a long-sleeved jacket
    • Coveralls
    • One or two-piece chemical-splash suit
    • Disposable chemical-resistant overalls
  • Inner chemical-resistant gloves
  • Outer chemical-resistant gloves
  • Chemical-resistant outer boots with a steel toe and shank

The following elements may be added to Level B protection, as needed:

  • Coveralls
  • Disposable chemical-resistant boot covers
  • Hard hat
  • Face shield

Level C HazMat Suit

Level C PPE is useful when you've detected an airborne contaminant but working conditions present little or no threat to your skin or eyes. Level C protection provides similar skin protection to Level B, but less respiratory protection.

While the respirators required for Level A and Level B protection might remind you of full-face SCUBA gear, Level C respirators often look like a "gas mask" with two bulbous cartridges.

What Conditions Require Level C HazMat Protection?

Level C HazMat suits should be used when:

  • Atmospheric contaminants, liquid splashes, and other direct contact will not adversely affect or be absorbed through exposed skin, and
  • Air contaminants have been identified, their concentrations have been measured, and an air-purifying respirator is available that can remove the contaminants, and
  • All criteria for using an air-purifying respirator have been met

Who Uses Level C PPE?

Level C HazMat suits are the most common level of protection for HazMat general site workers. They're often used for cleanup and response efforts at hazardous material sites because most have contaminants below OSHA's permissible exposure limits (PELs).

General workers like those in construction, manufacturing, and healthcare will also use Level C protection when the job task warrants it.

What Equipment is Required for Level C Protection?

Level C PPE must include a:

  • NIOSH-approved air purifying respirator (full-face or half-mask)
  • Hooded chemical-resistant clothing, which may be composed of
    • Overalls
    • Two-piece chemical-splash suit
    • Disposable chemical-resistant overalls
  • Inner chemical-resistant gloves
  • Outer chemical-resistant gloves
  • Chemical-resistant outer boots with a steel toe and shank

The following elements may be added to Level C protection, as needed:

  • Coveralls
  • Disposable chemical-resistant boot covers
  • Hard hat
  • Face shield
  • Escape mask

Level D HazMat Suit

Level D HazMat suit provides no respiratory protection and minimal splash protection. It should be used for "nuisance-level" contaminants only.

What Conditions Require Level D HazMat Protection?

Level D HazMat gear should be used when:

  • The atmosphere contains no known hazard, and
  • Your work functions make it impossible that you'll be subjected to a hazardous level of any chemical, including splashes, immersion, inhalation, or direct contact.

Who Uses Level D PPE?

Level D HazMat protection is very common. It's appropriate for the common hazards you might find in construction, factory, and warehouse settings, though if chemical agents are involved in one of those jobs, you'll need a higher level of protection.

Level D PPE is used by HazMat workers involved with support activity only, like equipment supply, maintenance, off-site vehicle operation, supervision, or management.

What Equipment is Required for Level D Protection?

At minimum, Level D PPE must include coveralls and chemical-resistant boots or shoes with a steel toe and shank.

That's it.

The following elements may be added to Level D protection, as needed:

  • Gloves
  • Safety glasses or chemical splash goggles
  • Disposable chemical-resistant outer boots
  • Hard hat
  • Face shield
  • Escape mask

HAZWOPER Training

You need a lot more than PPE to work safely around hazardous materials – you also need training. OSHA requires different types of training that depend on the dangerous substance and the tasks that workers perform.

Chances are, if you need a HazMat Level A, B, or C suit, you need Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) training as well. We're an OSHA-authorized training provider with a full range of self-paced online HAZWOPER courses, as well as GHS/HCS and substance-specific training.

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