Hesperian Health Guides

Protective Clothing and Equipment

In this chapter:

Every person should wear protective clothing, also called personal protective equipment, when working with or being exposed to harmful materials. It is the responsibility of employers to provide protective equipment for workers. Workers should demand that employers respect their rights to health and safety by providing protective equipment and maintaining it in good condition.

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hard hat
(safety helmet)
safety glasses
or goggles
dust mask
long-sleeved shirt
long pants
(women too!)
keep pant legs
outside boots
boot or closed
shoes, with socks

In order to protect people, protective clothing must fit and must be well-maintained. It is said that in poor countries there are 3 kinds of protective equipment: too big, too small, and torn.If you do not have protective clothing and equipment, you can protect yourself by wearing a rain suit, or by making protective clothing out of plastic bags. Cut holes for your head and arms and put other bags on your arms and legs, and hands and feet.

This picture shows all of the kinds of protection equipment needed to protect against most harmful materials. Not all jobs or materials demand all of this equipment, and some kinds of work require specialized clothes and equipment.

Farmworkers exposed to pesticides should wear:

2 workers, one wearing googles and a face mask, the other wearing a face shield.
If no respirator or face mask is available, people often use a bandana or scarf. But pesticides will stick to a wet or sweaty scarf or bandana. This makes it more dangerous to use these than to have no mouth protection at all. If you do use a scarf or bandana, rinse and dry it often, and know that it does not offer much protection.
A farm worker spraying pesticide over seedlings.
hat with brim to protect against sun
a respirator or face mask
a thick canvas, plastic,or rubber apron
long pants

Oil and mine workers are better protected when they wear:

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dust masks or respirators fitted with filters for the specific chemicals they are exposed to
a safety helmet to protect against head injuries
hearing protection

People collecting waste, and health workers at hospitals, health clinics, and other health care settings should wear:

A man lifting a bag out of a trash can labelled "Infectious Waste."
safety glasses to protect against splashes
a face mask to protect against germs
durable gloves
closed shoes

Protective clothing and equipment works only if it is clean. After each use, or at the end of each shift, wash gloves, masks, glasses, and other clothing and equipment to prevent the next person who uses them from being contaminated.

Protective masks

The best ways to prevent harm from breathing in toxic chemicals and dust are to have good ventilation when working with them, and to wear a protective mask made to protect against the chemicals you are working with. If you feel ill from a chemical while wearing a mask, it is a sign the mask is not working properly, or that you are being exposed to that or some other toxic chemical in some other way.

Loose cloth or paper mask
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This mask will help keep out some dust. It will not stop you from breathing in chemical fumes. Fumes pass through paper and cloth and leak in around the edges of a loose-fitting mask.

Tight-fitting paper mask
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This mask will protect from dust. The mask should touch your face all the way around. It will not stop you from breathing in chemical fumes. These masks clog up or wear out quickly and must be replaced when they no longer touch the face all around.

Plastic dust mask
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This mask will protect from dust better than a loose cloth or tight paper mask. The mask should touch your face all the way around. It will not stop you from breathing in chemical fumes.

Rubber respirator
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This rubber mask with filters MAY keep you from breathing in chemical fumes. It must fit your face tightly so no air leaks in between your skin and the mask. You will probably need a different filter for each chemical and must change the filter often. You will need special training to fit, use, and clean this mask. This mask is hot and uncomfortable to wear. When working with chemicals, take breaks often in an open, well-ventilated area where you can safely remove the mask.

How to make a cloth and activated charcoal mask

This homemade mask was designed by Dr. Maramba of the Philippines. It will give some protection from chemicals and dust.

1. Cut one cup from a padded cloth bra.
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2. Remove padding from the bra cup.
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3. Cut some filter paper to make a pouch for a new pad that will fit inside the bra. Fill the filter paper pad with 100 grams of activated charcoal, making sure a layer of charcoal fills the entire filter evenly rather than settling to the bottom. Seal the paper so it will not spill, and place it inside the bra where the bra pad was.
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Fit the bra cup with elastic straps to hold it tightly to your face.

The filter should be aired out between uses. If used while spraying the most toxic chemicals, this mask is good only for 2 uses of 4 hours each. The charcoal must be replaced within 1 week, depending on the type of chemical exposure and how long it is worn.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024