Protect yourself

Applying chemicals may seem like routine work for anyone employed in grounds care. Yet, some applicators may be overlooking the need to wear the right personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce exposure to contaminants. Choosing the correct type of clothing, footwear, gloves, eye protection and respiratory protection is a necessity when using chemicals of any toxicity level.

Ross Kaye, safety product manager for Gempler's, Inc., a Wisconsin-based catalog retailer for agriculture, horticulture, grounds maintenance and construction, says excessive exposure to chemicals can have long-term health effects. For example, an applicator may lose the sense of smell, depending on exposure levels.

“You are working with something that is… an industrial-grade type of pesticide that you won't find under your kitchen sink,” Kaye says. “Some people work around it for so long that they take it for granted, start losing their sense of smell, and say, ‘Well, I'm used to it.’ But you never get used to chemicals like that.”

Wearing inadequate PPE — or no PPE at all — during the application of pesticides could also lead to vision and respiratory problems, and to skin rashes, such as dermatitis. In addition, some pesticides are carcinogenic, which means exposure over long periods of time may result in certain types of cancers.

Choosing body protection

The toxicity level of the chemical is the key to determining the correct body protection or coveralls. The pesticide label should include a toxicity class, or so-called signal word, with Class I (“Danger”) being the most toxic, followed by Class II (“Warning”) for moderately toxic, and Class III and Class IV (“Caution”) for the least toxic chemicals. However, Kaye says, sometimes the label information may be vague.

“The chemical's material safety data sheet (MSDS) will provide additional information and is another good resource in helping to determine personal protection and use of the chemical,” he says.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations require manufacturers to provide MSDSs with chemicals. But, according to Kaye, testing the chemical or pesticide on coveralls, gloves and booties that are worn over shoes is the most reliable way to determine if your PPE will provide adequate protection and remain useful for a reasonable number of applications.

When testing the chemical or pesticide, check to see if it seeps through the material, or if it changes the material's physical appearance.

Kaye says when applying dry chemicals that are granular or powdery, Tyvek coveralls are normally the PPE of choice by applicators. They are available in customary white as well as navy, which has been popular with the owners of golf courses and other public attractions.

“Some applicators are worried that if pesticides are being used in a public place and the applicators are wearing all white suits, people will be alarmed by that,” he says. “The blue makes it look like a maintenance coverall and it draws less attention.”

For sprays or splashes of low-toxicity (Class III and IV) liquid applications, Kaye recommends the Pro Shield 2 (see photo, page 55). He says the brand is popular with applicators because the material breathes and allows heat and perspiration to escape when the chemicals are applied in hot weather. Pro Shield 2 is also liquid-resistant from sprays and splashes.

When applying chemicals in the “Danger” or “Warning” class (Class I or II), you should wear coveralls that are completely liquid-proof so there is no exposure to the body. When applying Class II chemicals, coveralls like polyethylene-coated Tyvek are recommended. For Class I chemical applications, you can use PPE made of poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) (see photo, above) or Tychem SL, which is produced by Tyvek.

Choosing gloves

When selecting chemical-resistant gloves, again, you should follow the directions on the pesticide label. Regardless of the glove material used, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a glove at least 14 mil thick for pesticide applications.

Kaye says that 15-mil thick nitrile gloves are popular for pesticide protection because they are resistant against a wide range of chemicals, plus they offer good dexterity and good abrasion and puncture resistance.

EPA has developed a Chemical Resistance Category Selection Chart (see chart, page 57) for gloves, with eight categories listed A through H that may be included on some pesticide labels. The chart lists the chemical resistance of various PPE materials that may be used in gloves, such as butyl, nitrile, neoprene, natural rubber, polyethylene and PVC. The materials are rated anywhere from “high” (meaning highly chemical resistant) to “none” (which means it is not chemical resistant and should not be used as PPE). Other labels may simply list the actual glove material needed.

Incidentally, EPA has prohibited the use of lined gloves or glove liners during pesticide application due to fears that the chemical may be absorbed into the liner and later into the skin.

Foot protection

As for foot protection, Kaye says leather shoes or boots should never be worn during pesticide application because the chemicals may soak through the leather and into the skin. He says 16-inch-tall boots made of PVC offer the best protection; but economical, latex booties that stretch over the shoes may also work, depending on the chemical.

“A lot of people will wear those for protection from some chemicals, then throw them away if they are worried about contamination,” he says.

Eye and face protection

When it comes to protecting the eyes from pesticides, Kaye says sunglasses are not adequate and even safety glasses with side shields and brow guards also have their imperfections.

“Safety glasses give you some protection from splashes, but not much,” he says. “I would not recommend going with them, because there is too much open area and mist could seep in.”

Kaye says goggles provide the best splash protection because they fit tightly around the face. Most include an indirect ventilation system that reduces discomfort and fogging while preventing pesticides from seeping in.

He adds that face shields are also good for spraying, but they only provide secondary protection. In fact, OSHA requires face shield users to wear goggles or safety glasses underneath, because the shield may be open around the chin and unable to provide protection for the eyes. When chemicals are being sprayed on plants overhead, Kaye suggests that the applicator wear a hood and goggles, and to spray the plants downwind.

Choosing respiratory protection

OSHA requires employers to provide workers with respirators if they will be exposed to contaminants that may affect their health, and the EPA requires appropriate respiratory protection for applicators exposed to pesticides. Respirators must be certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The pesticide label will have the NIOSH approval number for the respirator to be worn, or will describe the appropriate NIOSH-approved respirator.

With some respirators, you will need to use chemical cartridges for gas and vapor protection and a pre-filter that traps particulates such as dusts and mists. For others, only particulate protection may be required. To determine what type of respiratory protection is necessary, read your pesticide label. However, the pesticide label lists only the minimum requirements. In some situations, you may opt for a higher level of protection.

Older pesticide labels will list a NIOSH/MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) TC number, which refers to the type of respiratory protection needed, such as a TC-21C or TC-23C. Newer pesticide labels may list a NIOSH “TC” approval number, such as TC-23C, or will describe the type of respirator required, such as a NIOSH-approved respirator with an organic vapor-removing cartridge with any N, R, P or HE (high-efficiency) filter.

A TC-21C or TC-84A respirator refers to a particulate, or “dust-mist” respirator (see photo, right), which only protects against particulates, not gases or vapors. These respirators have two straps, and should not be mistaken for the single strap, non-toxic particle masks that are not NIOSH approved.

A TC-23C is a dual cartridge respirator with organic vapor-removing cartridges that adsorb vapors and pre-filters that trap dust and mist particulates.

There are two classes of particulate protection. These designations are used for particulate (“dust-mist”) respirators and the pre-filters that attach to organic vapor cartridges. The first type is N95, which is a non-resistant to oil-based pesticides that are sprayed. The second type of particulate respirator and pre-filter is P100, which protects against oil-based pesticides. The life expectancy of these cartridges varies by manufacturer.

Pre-filters are available in different filtration efficiencies, such as 95 and 100 that refer to the percentage of particulates the filter is able to trap. For example, an N95 filter is not resistant to oil-based pesticides and traps 95 percent of particulates from entering the respiratory system. (Note: 100 filters trap 99.97 percent of particulates).

Although some pesticide labels only require particulate protection, such as “dust-mist” respirators, dual cartridge respirators are often used to protect against gases and vapors. These are available in half-masks, full-face for eye protection or powered-air, in which air is circulated from a motor to keep you cooler and more comfortable.

Sometimes, the label requires a higher level of protection, such as a gas mask (TC-14G), a supplied air respirator (TC-19C) or a self-contained breathing apparatus or SCBA (TC-13F). SCBAS and supplied air respirators are most often used when the contaminant displaces oxygen, such as with fumigants in enclosed spaces, so these are less frequently required in grounds care.

Keep in mind that the type of respirator you choose depends on the type of chemical that's being applied. Always refer to the chemical label and, for additional information, to the MSDS.

Caring for your PPE

Kaye says applicators using PPE on a continual basis need to check for any wear and tear or other damage that may cause the user to be exposed to chemicals. Many coveralls and gloves are not for permanent use and should be disposed of after one wearing.

Some protective clothing that's equipped for longer use may be cleaned in a washing machine with detergent, but it should always be handled with chemical-resistant gloves and kept separate from other laundry. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations if you are not sure what type of detergent to use or whether or not the garment can be machine-washed.

The clothing should be rinsed twice in warm water after the wash cycle is completed to make sure all pesticides have been removed. If the PPE has a moderate amount of pesticide residue, run it through two complete wash cycles. Protective clothing that is heavily contaminated with pesticides or other hazardous chemicals should be disposed of in accordance with your local and state regulations.

You can clean pesticide residues out of a washing machine by running it empty through at least one complete cycle, using hot water and detergent.

Newly washed protective clothing should be hung outside to dry for at least 24 hours. Also, pesticide contaminated clothing should not be put in the dryer, because pesticide residues may build up in the dryer over time.

Chemical cartridges in respirators are “used up” when the worker begins to smell or taste a substance or experiences throat or respiratory irritation while using the respirator. OSHA requires the user to develop a change-out schedule so he or she replaces the cartridges prior to exposure (smelling or tasting the contaminant). According to the EPA, cartridges should be replaced when the respirator manufacturer or pesticide label requires it (whichever is shorter), or at the end of each workday in the absence of any other instructions or indications.

When not in use, chemical cartridges should be stored in airtight plastic bags or containers to extend their lives. However, before storing them, make sure the cartridges are dry and free of moisture.

Particulate filters will eventually become caked with trapped particles. They should be replaced if breathing resistance becomes excessive, the filter is physically damaged, or if the pesticide label or respirator manufacturer requires it.

Reusable respirators may be cleaned with detergent and water but only after removing the cartridges and filters. Refer to the manufacturer's cleaning instructions.

Note: GEMPLER'S Technical Services Manager Becky Brown also contributed to this story. For more information about personal protective equipment, call GEMPLER'S Technical Services Department at (800) 874-4755, E-mail them at, or visit the Web site at

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