Safety and value: You can have it all
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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