Expert Commentary

Safety and value: You can have it all

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics' Marketing and Development Manager weighs up the total cost of owning the two available types of chemical-protective suit
Weighing the costs and benefits of purchasing new equipment is crucial for the safety of emergency rescue teams

Everyone dealing with hazardous materials - fire fighters, emergency personnel, frontline staff in defence departments and other such professionals - has something in common: they all recognize the crucial importance of safety. Maintaining a robust, compliant arsenal of chemical-protective suits is essential to being readily equipped for an emergency situation. Yet, a factor that always comes into the equation when selecting fire safety equipment is cost.

Because safety is not something one would want to compromise on, cost-benefit analyses are crucial for ensuring that the best solution is chosen. In this article, Ian Hutcheson, Marketing and Development Manager of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, discusses total cost of ownership of chemical & fire protection equipment, focusing his analysis on gas-tight chemical-protective suits.

The use of fully-encapsulated gas-tight protective suits is standard for monitoring and inspecting the scene of serious emergencies, as well as for mounting rescue, containment or clean-up operations. In terms of protecting emergency teams, the choice is often between limited-life and reusable gas-tight chemical protective suits. Both of these suit types have similar safety standards and application areas, as set out by the European Standard EN 943-2 certification, established by the European Committee for Standarization (CEN).  Yet, cost-effectiveness must be considered when looking for new equipment. Value for money is a common theme across municipal and corporate organisations alike, as leaders try to squeeze already-tight budgets to ensure that the job they have to do is done. Limiting expenditure for new equipment without compromising safety is challenging and requires informed decision-making.

The most important question to answer in this decision-making process is: “How can organisations ensure they receive the utmost in safety and value when selecting chemical-protective gear for their team?” Too often, this decision is made by purchasing departments based on list price alone. However, the acquisition price only provides a partial picture as it merely reflects one portion of the entire cost.  An analysis of the total cost of ownership (TCO) is not only a more comprehensive method for determining the full cost of chemical-protective suits but is also an imperative from a business perspective. A TCO analysis will take into account indirect costs such as maintenance, inspection and repair costs, which can have a dramatic impact on the overall spend level that lead to unanticipated budget over-runs.

Here, a Total Cost of Ownership Analysis shall be applied to the two available classes of gas-tight chemical-protective suits: limited life and reusable. There are suit options in both classes that are EN-certified, as per EN943-2, for use in protecting wearers in emergency situations. This certification, as well as the mandatory CE mark, ensures that minimum safety levels are in place for the suits.  A TCO analysis of both types of these protective suits will thoroughly demonstrate that they differ significantly in several aspects, all of which are relevant to purchasers looking for quality and value.

Direct costs

Acquisition Price

While the list price should not be the sole consideration in the purchase of chemical-protective gear, it is nonetheless the starting point of any cost analysis, being the most basic and easily determinable element of cost. A comparison between the two different types of chemical-protective suits is, therefore, very straightforward: the average price for a reusable suit is €2,500-4,000 while a limited life suit runs €1,000-1,500. However, it is important to understand the various factors which influence cost.

Limiting expenditure for new equipment without compromising safety is challenging and requires informed decision-making

Indirect factors that influence costs

When moving beyond acquisition price, there are several additional factors that serve to increase the overall cost of chemical-protective suits.

Inspection and Recertification

While financial aspects must be taken into consideration, no organisation can afford to compromise on safety to save a few pence or cents. Consequently, regular inspection is crucial for protective suits that are intended for more than one use. Such inspection obviously entails costs that need to be considered in a TCO analysis.

Reusable suits generally have a shelf life of 5 to 10 years and are required to be inspected annually by the manufacturers, which costs €250-500 per suit. Here again, the upfront price alone is not the only source of cost. It should also be taken into account that the suits need to be sent out for annual inspection and re-certification, a process that can take two to three months per suit. During this time, replacement suits must be at the ready to protect personnel, resulting in additional investment.

Basically, an organisation must have more suits in its inventory than is actually required, in order to ensure preparedness in the event of an incident. Add to the cost of such,  the cost of shipping and logistics, along with the time needed for administrative purposes, and the inspection and recertification process could be quite an expensive exercise.

The inspection of reusable suits becomes more complicated if the suits have been used. In this case, a certificate of decontamination is required before sending the suits out to ensure the safety of those transporting and handling them. Organisations must ensure they have Standard Operating Procedures governing this process. Here, human error is also a possibility, with the risk of indirect contamination if suits are not properly cleaned, or if contaminants are particularly difficult to remove.

For limited-life suits, inspections are only needed if the suit has been removed from its package but not exposed to any chemicals, for instance, in the case of a false alarm. Here, inspection procedures are straightforward as the suit simply has to be visually inspected and a pressure-test performed to ensure that it is still gas-tight. This operation can be performed by emergency personnel themselves or at cost of approximately €100-150 by the main suit-providers. If a limited-life suit is contaminated, it must be disposed of (see section on Disposability below).

It should also be noted that most suit usage takes place during practice sessions, making it advisable to dedicate a certain number of suits to training to minimize the cost of replacing or reinspecting suits that have never been used in real action.

Maintenance and repair

Protective fire equipment
Maintenance and repair costs must be factored into cost analyses for total cost of ownership

As with any object of utility, damage can occur, necessitating repair, even though both types of suits are highly robust. The cost of repairs for both limited-life and reusable suits varies, depending on what needs to be fixed and could range from as little as €50 for the patching of a small cut, to, many hundreds of euro and more. If a suit is significantly impaired, for example, if a zip or visor is damaged, it may not be worth repairing, as the cost of such may exceed the acquisition price. Maintenance and repair costs must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, thus creating extra administration costs.

Cleaning

No one wants to put on a suit that features odorous evidence of previous wearers, so for the purpose of personal hygiene, the cleaning of reusable suits is necessary. Cleaning infrastructures must be set up, including cleaning areas, access to liquid and detergents, and drying rooms to accommodate a large number of suits. In the case of limited-life suits, cleaning is a much less regular occurrence, therefore the same level of work and infrastructure is not needed.

Storage

Chemical-protective suits present unique storage challenges. Fortunately, the infrequency of chemical incidents leads to most of these suits being disposed of at the end of their shelf lives without ever actually being used in a “hazmat” incident.  Nonetheless they need to be conveniently and safely stored yet readily accessible, as one can never predict the timing of such incidents.

Specific and rather tedious storage requirements must be followed for reusable suits. Due to their thick, often rubber-like material composition, they typically need to be laid flat or hung up - repeated folding may cause stress-cracking or seam tape delamination. This means that a large amount of space is required to store the suits, which can be costly and inconvenient. By contrast, limited-life suits are typically lighter, more flexible and take up significantly less room. Owing to this, they can be stored folded in their original package and removed anytime in a ready-to-use condition.

Disposability

The disposal process for limited-life and reusable suits is much the same. Both will need to be decontaminated before disposal, in accordance with organisational procedures. However, if limited-life suits have been contaminated during use, they must be disposed of, whereas reusable suits have the option of being inspected and reused. Of course, there is always the possibility that reusable suits may need to be destroyed after a chemical incident if deemed too risky or costly to inspect or repair. Additionally, damage is not immediately obvious in all cases and there is always the risk that the suit has not been 100 per cent effectively decontaminated, especially if a mix of hazardous chemicals is present at an incident.

Non-monetary, yet important factors to consider

While total cost is a very important consideration when deciding on a chemical-protective suit, there are other factors that can’t be given a monetary value but should still be taken into account. These "money can’t buy" features include user comfort and safety.

The infrequency of chemical incidents leads to most suits being disposed of at the end of their shelf lives without ever actually being used

Comfort

Working in gas-tight chemical-protective suits is strenuous as they are heavier and less flexible than non-encapsulated protective clothing. Features that improve comfort and manoeuvrability can significantly enhance the user’s ability to work efficiently; therefore such features should certainly be considered as part of an overall assessment of suit options.

In general, the lighter the suit, the less arduous it is for the user to wear. Some limited-life suits weigh less than their reusable counterparts.  Furthermore, limited-life suits tend to offer more flexibility than thicker rubber-like reusable suits.

Safety

As mentioned previously, organisations can find certified options for both reusable and limited-life suits. It is important to note that these suits are also rated against various performance criteria. During the selection process, the purchasing organisation should also consider the test results in terms of factors such as flex-cracking as well as flame and puncture resistance.

Conclusion

Safety and value are equally paramount considerations when selecting a chemical-protective suit. It is apparent that there are many important factors beyond initial list price that need to be considered in order to determine the true cost of limited life and reusable suits. As demonstrated above, a TCO analysis may prove a useful tool in helping decision makers weigh their options. By exposing hidden and ongoing expenses, an accurate picture of overall cost is revealed.

Ian Hutcheson of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics

Ian Hutcheson - Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics

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