In many industrial and construction workplaces, contaminated clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) are an everyday occurrence. Dust, dirt and more hazardous contaminants such as lead and asbestos can cover workers, making their protective gear or clothing dangerous.
Too often, employees carry these contaminants home on their clothing, getting the materials into their cars and homes where it can impact the health of their families and friends. A study performed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) documented instances of home contamination in 36 states and 28 countries. The contaminants found in the study included: asbestos, lead, beryllium, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, pesticides, chlorinated hydrocarbons, estrogenic substances, fibrous glass, allergens and infectious agents.
In some cases, workers carry contaminants home that cause temporary problems such as respiratory symptoms, but in other cases such as asbestos contamination, workers can expose their families to materials that can cause cancer.
To prevent these kinds of exposures, it’s important for businesses and workers to understand how to minimize the amount of contaminants they carry home on their clothing. The best way to do this is to use proper procedures for removing and laundering clothing and protective gear. The methods for cleaning contaminated work clothing vary depending on the contaminant, so we’ll examine a few common contaminants and the best ways to prevent exposures.
Dealing with Contaminants that Cause Serious Health Hazards
Although lead has been banned from many commercial applications, workers who perform building renovations or work with certain types of batteries may still be exposed to it. High levels of lead exposure can cause damage to the kidneys and nervous system. Lead is especially dangerous for children, as it can hinder brain development.
If proper protective gear isn’t worn during work involving lead, it’s easy for it to get onto workers’ clothing and travel home with them. Workplaces must provide PPE to prevent lead exposures and they are required to launder all protective gear for workers, according to OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.1025. Any street clothing that becomes contaminated with lead should be removed and not worn home either.
Companies should seek out methods for laundering contaminated gear and clothing that keep everyone safe. Work with commercial laundries to see what steps should be taken to clean these garments, and make sure everything that is soiled with lead is contained and has proper warning labels on its containers.
Like lead, asbestos can cause serious health problems. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used in many products including construction materials for much of the twentieth century. Construction and renovation workers often encounter asbestos at work. When disturbed, the material can become airborne, and when it’s inhaled it can imbed in the lungs, eventually causing cancer.
Asbestos dust can be carried home on work clothes if proper protective steps aren’t taken. As with lead, work with asbestos requires protective gear and employers are responsible for cleaning that gear (according to standard 29 CFR 1910.1001). Protective apparel and clothing that become contaminated with asbestos should not be worn home.
Farm workers are often exposed to a variety of pesticides and other chemicals in the course of their work. Generally, protective gear should be worn to prevent the chemicals from contacting skin and regular clothing. When clothing does become contaminated, workers should take extra precautions when laundering these garments.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension recommends keeping dirty work clothing separate from other laundry and washing it after every work shift. It should be pre-washed with a hose outdoors and then washed separately in the washing machine with hot water and hung to dry. Then the washing machine should be cleaned by running it on empty with hot water.
It’s best to consult the safety information for specific pesticides before use to determine whether the manufacturer provides special instructions for protective clothing and laundering.
Blood and Infectious Agents
In some work settings such as hospitals, dental clinics and laboratories, infectious agents are a concern. The type of protective gear workers wear will depend on the work situation, but under the bloodborne pathogen standard (29 CFR 1910.1030), OSHA does require that employers wash this PPE.
Work clothing like scrubs can generally be laundered at home since it is not designed to protect from dangerous pathogens. When contamination does occur, workplaces should have procedures in place for removing and decontaminating this clothing.
Contaminated Clothing Best Practices
Specific protocols for dealing with contaminants in the workplace often depend on the situation. Employers should keep the following guidelines in mind, though, when dealing with contaminants that could be carried home on clothing:
- Know the safety requirements for the substances your workers deal with
- Provide required PPE
- Create procedures for removing contaminated gear and clothing
- Work with a commercial laundry to clean gear
- Provide shower and hand washing facilities if highly dangerous contaminants such as lead or asbestos are present
Workers should also look out for their own safety and follow these best practices:
- Wear protective gear
- Remove gear using your employer’s instructions (Ex: handle contaminated clothing with gloves, keep gear separate from street clothes, etc.)
- Shower before leaving work if instructed to do so
- When you are allowed to take work clothing home with you, wash it separately
- Be aware of symptoms caused by the contaminants you work with and report symptoms if you or your family members experience them
Stay on top of other clothing hazards in the workplace, too. Listen to our short podcast about the hazards of loose clothing.