Long before emergency responders subject personal protective equipment to actual conditions -- i.e., fire fighting -- it has been subjected to rigorous testing that simulates the same. Much of that justified abuse is done by Intertek, specialists in third-party testing and certification.
“A host of recent revisions in National Fire Protection Association standards promises to keep the testing laboratory busy for the foreseeable future”, said Jason Allen, technical advisor for Intertek specializing in PPE.
“It’s been an interesting year because there have been so many changes,” Allen said. “Some really major standards have been revised.”
London-based Intertek operates more than 1,000 laboratories in 100 countries, employing 35,000 people. The company tests, inspects and certifies a broad range of products in accordance with national safety standards.
In regard to PPE, Intertek is the laboratory of choice for third-party certifications through the Safety Equipment Institute for a wide array of test standards. SEI then issues its certificate based on that testing.
“The manufacturers determine what standards they would like to certify to and then pay to have their products independently evaluated,” Allen said. “SEI also audits the manufacturers’ sites to certify that they comply with quality regulations.”
“Although SEI uses different test labs, almost all testing to NFPA standards is done by Intertek”, he said.
Drawing the most attention among the recent revisions is NFPA 1981 governing self contained breathing apparatus. The 2013 revisions include major improvement to the face piece lens.
“Field reports were coming in from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health about line-of-duty deaths attributed to face piece lens failures,” Allen said. “What they were finding is the face pieces were softening to the point that a hole could form.”
NIOSH contacted NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST and Intertek worked together to come up with new testing for the face piece using a high radiant heat load.
“The NFPA revision is completed and on the street,” Allen said. “We’ve been testing to it for a while now.”
Other major standard changes regarding SCBA have been allowing Emergency Breathing Safety Systems (EBSS) and changing the testing for speech intelligibility when wearing a face mask.
“A lot of the devices for speech intelligibility are electronic,” Allen said. “The devices we have in the lab now are much improved.”
As electronics become more critical in PPE, so does the testing of those electronics, he said. Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) devices are a case in point.
“There were people who reported that their PASS devices were filling with water,” Allen said. “Working with the NFPA committee we created a test where we heated it, dunked it in water, heated it again, dunked it again, over and over. It definitely developed some real improvements in the products.”
Modern PASS devices enable incident commanders to transmit an evacuation or EVAC signal to each firefighter rather than depend solely on blasts from an air horn. The NFPA committee has developed testing to evaluate how well an EVAC signal penetrates the different structures that may be burning.
“It’s testing in both directions,” Allen said. “It’s transmitting the EVAC from a base system as well as transmitting an ‘I’m in trouble’ signal from the firefighter in the building.”
NFPA 1971 covers structural fire fighting PPE. The biggest changes to that standard have been the effort to improve the dexterity of gloves and improvement to the slip resistance test for footwear, Allen said.
“We’re talking about the feel of the gloves and how well you can work with a pike pole using them,” he said. “Despite these changes, there are additional improvements that we will be focusing on within the next revision cycle including how well you can work a radio with your gloves on.”
Besides bunker gear, Intertek has done quite a bit of work involving hazardous materials PPE. One issue under review has to do with haz mat PPE flame resistance, Allen said.
“An occasional brush with something like the flame from a cigarette lighter is quite different from a burning torch,” he said. ”Sometimes we err on the side of caution so far that we might be lessening the protection from more common exposures or potentially making the suit more difficult to work within than desired”
“You want to be sure the fabric extinguishes in a certain period of time,” Allen said. “We’re trying to determine if it is an appropriate amount of heat for the right duration.”
Perhaps not as well known as Underwriters Laboratories, Intertek is no newcomer to third-party product testing. Like the UL logo, Intertek’s ETL listed mark demonstrates compliance to the requirements of widely accepted product safety standards.
Intertek traces its history to the Lamp Testing Bureau of Thomas Edison’s Edison Electric Illuminating Company in 1896. Today, it is a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL), an independent laboratory recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to test products to the specifications of applicable product safety standards.
The company is also recognized as a Testing Organization (TO) and Certifying Body (CB) in Canada and as a Notified Body (NB) in Europe.