Gear decontamination reduces health risk for workers' families

Firefighting, oil and gas, recycling just some industries that must take note

Gear decontamination reduces health risk for workers' families

Trish Daubs’ father worked for 35 years as a carpenter in the Chemical Valley, a 25-kilometre region in Sarnia, Ont., where more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries are located. Much of his time in the plant was spent insulating pipes with asbestos. He wore no protective equipment. Many years after he retired, he became extremely sick and died within two years. The cause of his death, Daubs would later find out, was mesothelioma, an aggressive, rare type of cancer whose strongest and most common risk factor is occupational exposure to asbestos.

Within months of her father’s death, Daubs’ mother, who regularly washed her husbands’ asbestos-laden clothes, also fell ill. Her illness, characterized by constant retching and night sweats followed by chills, was determined to also be mesothelioma. 

“When she met the doctors, they were really puzzled that a 77-year-old woman who had never worked outside of the home was dying from an industrial disease. When they discovered where my father worked and that she had washed his clothes, it suddenly all made sense to them,” Daubs says. 

Daubs’ mother died about a year and a half after her father. 

“My experience with industrial disease, quite honestly, has been devastating, especially knowing that it was preventable,” she says.

For workers who handle harmful substances, there is always a risk that some of that material will accumulate on their work clothes or personal protective equipment (PPE). Leaving these contaminants on the clothing as they go to lunch, back to the station or home at the end of the day can produce serious health effects for them and their families. Workers and managers need to be aware of these dangers and know what decontamination procedures they should use to reduce unnecessary exposures. 

“Decontamination is a huge issue and it spans just about all industries,” says Moira Botham, director of Calgary-based Mesa Environment, Health and Safety and former manager of health and safety at Cenovus Energy in Calgary. “In any industry or occupation that either comes into contact with or handles hazardous material, there has to be some assessing of the risk of spreading or releasing that contaminant. And part of that release is what you walk off the site with.”

The types of PPE and equipment that require decontamination can vary widely. Gas station mechanics need to clean oil, solvents or gasoline off their overalls, for example. Other times, the hazard may be more difficult to detect. During the remediation of oil and gas sites in Alberta, Botham recalls, their safety program required workers to wash down the tires of trucks leaving the site. 

“We didn’t want to lose track of the contaminated soil on their treads,” she says.

When proper decontamination is not carried out, contaminants can permeate protective clothing, respiratory equipment, tools and any other equipment on-site. They may transfer to co-workers or to clean areas. But the harm done by improper decontamination can go even further.

“One of the issues with not decontaminating your PPE is that sometimes people take it home. And once you take your PPE home, then you’re potentially exposing a spouse, the more sensitive receptors of children and maybe pregnant women who aren’t working. You have that secondary exposure,” Botham says. “That’s why everyone now realizes that when you’re wearing PPE, there has to be a mechanism to clean the PPE that doesn’t involve taking it home and washing it.”

Inadequate decontamination also affects contract workers, whose numbers have risen greatly in recent years, she adds. For contractors, who may not be using a laundry service, it is again good practice to have washers and dryers on-site so work clothing can be cleaned before they go home.


Every work site should have a decontamination plan in place before a worker or equipment enters an area where there is a potential for exposure to hazardous substances. The plan specifies the number and layout of decontamination areas, appropriate decontamination methods to be used and equipment needed. Decontamination tools include scrub brushes, large galvanized washtubs, children’s wading pools, garden sprayers, metal or plastic drums and paper or cloth towels.

Many contaminants can be removed by physical means including dislodging, rinsing, wiping off and evaporation. Common removal methods include: rinsing with water using pressurized or gravity flow; chemical leaching and extraction; evaporation; and using pressurized air jets and scrubbing or scraping, usually done using brushes, scrapers or sponges.

In the case of asbestos, a stream of water is used. Asbestos is a particulate and the fibres are inhaled.  However, when wet, it can be contained. The worker goes into a separate area and removes dirty clothing, except the respirator. The person then goes into a shower (which rinses the fibres off), rinses his or her face and takes off  the respirator.

Where asbestos is a risk, companies must consult provincial guidelines, contained in a separate manual, as in Alberta, or written into OHS legislation, that set out the different risk levels and procedures that they are required to follow, says Jason Dent, principal consultant at Sherwood Park, Alta.-based JADA Solutions.

Water used to clean off highly toxic materials must be tested before it is disposed of. The water should be tested and may have to be filtered to remove particulates. Moreover, disposable PPE should not be discarded along with regular refuse but should be disposed of as hazardous waste. 

Sometimes, contaminants cannot be removed physically; steps must be taken to inactivate the contaminant. During the dismantling of a lab that worked with acids, Botham says, the safety team had to neutralize the acids before workers could take off their PPE. 


In industries where harmful substances are prevalent, gear decontamination is of special concern. These industries include mining, construction, maintenance, manufacturing and oil and gas and in occupations such as electricians, car mechanics, industrial painting (lead) and firefighting.

During a fire, burning materials release smoke, soot and tar full of particles of toxic chemicals, many of them carcinogenic. Even after the fire, the health risk remains, as these chemicals are inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

As a result, firefighters are at increased risk of cancers and other serious illnesses. In fact, recent studies show that cancer is a leading cause of death among the occupation. According to research done by the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., firefighters are two to three times more likely to die from cancer than the general population. The research also showed cancer causes more than 86 per cent of firefighter deaths in Canada.

“More and more items are made from plastics, which are petroleum based, and when they burn, they give off many different deadly chemicals. So, when furniture, electronics and other materials burn, they release polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can cause DNA mutations and are known carcinogens,” says John Mavrinac, health and safety chairman with the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association in Toronto. 

Firefighters are also frequently exposed to significant concentrations of other harmful materials, he adds. These include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, aldehydes, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, particulates and asbestos. Even some of the bunker gear (the firefighter’s PPE) can off-gas a hazardous chemical when heated because it is treated with a water repellent. 

Every fire department should have some type of decontamination program in place, Mavrinac says. The plan should cover the decontamination of the firefighter’s person, along with their clothing, equipment and apparatus. It should also reflect the specific area conditions, such as weather, that could affect decontamination procedures.

The most effective way to reduce firefighters’ exposure to these hazardous substances, Mavrinac says, is by doing decontamination at the fire scene and not putting dirty bunker gear, equipment and breathing apparatuses into the cabs of fire trucks. 

“We respond to a call clean, and we should be returning clean or as clean as can be,” he says.

Every firefighter in a crew must know how to perform decontamination and take part in the procedures. Increasing awareness of the importance of cleaning up at the scene of a fire requires challenging the traditional firefighter culture.

“It’s the buy-in and culture change that we need to get into people’s heads. For the longest time, looking dirty was a way to show pride and say to your fellow firefighters that you battled the beast and won. But now we are learning it is slowly killing us,” says Mavrinac.


Oil and gas workers can come into contact with a variety of harmful substances. Petroleum gases can also adversely affect the nervous system, liver and kidneys. Some substances, such as gasoline, which contains benzene, are carcinogens. Others can cause respiratory problems or harm skin. 

Generally, workers on oil and gas sites wear flame-proof, anti-static coveralls, which protect the skin against flash fires and prevent the worker from creating static sparks that can ignite. The gas evaporates, but any oil needs to be removed. To do that, coveralls should be cleaned in a dedicated industrial washer on-site or by an industrial laundry service.

At one workplace, Botham recalls, she and her team were concerned that some of the workers, who would often jump into a truck and drive to another site, might be affected by off-gassing from dirty coveralls in the truck cab. Oil, gas and solvent exposure can cause cognitive impairment. The team conducted a study measuring how much hazardous substance was actually released in a truck cab. In the end, not enough off-gassing was detected to warrant concern.

“When we’re looking at a risk assessment, particularly in an environmental impact assessment, the goal is to identify all your potential impacts. And that means all the different pathways to release contaminants to an uncontrolled atmosphere or off the site,” Botham says. 

In addition to coveralls, gear decontamination includes hard hats and gloves. Safety gloves are often disposable to prevent secondary exposure during cleaning. 

“In oil and gas, if you’re trying to clean oil off a glove, you use solvents, and the solvents would be more hazardous than the oil,” she says. 

Respiratory equipment, often used in the oil and gas industry, must also be cleaned, she adds. Provincial regulation on the maintenance and cleaning of equipment should be followed. 

“You have to be able to clean your respirator. If your respirator isn’t clean, instead of protecting you, you could actually get more exposure.”

If masks are shared, as sometimes is the case when supplied air is used, they need to be thoroughly disinfected to prevent the spreading of germs. 

Protective gear may also be contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). Because these are particulates, which can be inhaled, coveralls should be disposable and never be taken home. 


Decontamination is a big issue in the electronics recycling industry; taking these products apart can produce lead, mercury and other contaminants. While working in older buildings, too, workers are required to dismantle structures and equipment that contain hazardous substances.

“In older buildings, you have asbestos; you might have lead paint or mercury,” Dent says. “There’s a big concern about how you handle that and protect your workers and make sure they’re not transferring that dust or debris into other areas of the building or taking it home.”

In many cases, workers will wear a Tyvek suit over their coveralls or work clothes so the suits can be disposed of every time they come and go from the work area, which has been isolated. Training is required on the proper way to put on and take off the disposable suit. 

Where workers do not have disposable coveralls, as in the electronic recycling industry, they are provided with a special decontamination area, where they take coveralls off. The coveralls are laundered after every shift, following proper handling procedures. 

“So, they wear fresh coveralls for each shift. And they make sure those coveralls aren’t drawing that lead dust or mercury or any of the other contaminants from the recycling area into their clean zone, lunchroom or other areas of the building where administration might work,” Dent says.

When deconstructing equipment can produce hazardous dusts, special steps should be taken. For example, Dent recalls, one job required the dismantling of a large oven used to dry wood. Because the dryer was covered in lead paint, they needed to reduce the lead dust and vapours released by the welding as much as possible. 

“We recommended in this scenario that workers have portable ventilation that would trap the dust or vapour they kicked up with the cutting, so they could minimize the release,” he says. 


Decontamination procedures should be established and included in an organization’s emergency response plans. Failing to properly clean contaminants off workers and equipment can transfer contamination to emergency medical personnel, ambulances and hospital emergency departments. 

All workers who will be involved in an emergency response must receive basic training in decontamination procedures. During an emergency, safety managers need to regularly check on workers responsible for decontamination to ensure they are not fatigued, their protection level is adequate and they have enough supplies.

The decontamination equipment will depend on the method of decontamination to be used and the type of hazards posed by the emergency. For wet decontamination, response workers may need to have supplies of water, hoses, brushes, buckets, cleaning agents, tarps, pools, pumps and tanks to hold the contaminated water. They should have disposal bags for bagging items that are not to be reused, such as inner gloves. For dry decontamination, workers may need brushes to remove gross contamination and bags to collect all spent materials. 

The decontamination area must be fully set up and operational before anyone enters it. Because different types of emergencies require different procedures, take time to consider the possible scenarios during emergency planning and include these in the response plans. 

Decontamination areas should be set up far enough away from the emergency that decontamination workers are not in danger. If the area is outdoors, it should be located upwind of any hazard. Workers should be trained on emergency decontamination procedures, and procedures should be reviewed regularly to make sure they are up to date.


Safety managers should look for ways to decrease the need for decontamination by reducing or eliminating unnecessary contamination. Adopt remote handling techniques, and have workers wear disposable outer garments. Botham also instructs workers to stay away from highly contaminated areas, to not touch certain things and to bag equipment they need while making openings in the bags at necessary points of contact. 

“Part of this is housekeeping, keeping floors clean. If there’s an oil drip, you don’t want to have that contamination where people are going to walk through it and spread it,” she says.

Since the death of her parents, Daubs has been active in various forms of advocacy work aimed at drawing attention to the effects of industrial diseases and, in particular, of asbestos. She participates in walks and other campaigns to support the total elimination of asbestos. She was surprised to learn how prevalent mesothelioma is and hopes that, by talking about her family’s experience, she can raise awareness of the dire health effects of chemicals on both workers and their family members.

“No one should pay the price my parents did, and if stories like mine can have an impact, I fully support sharing them to highlight the high personal cost of not protecting workers like my father.”

Linda Johnson is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has been writing for COS for eight years.  

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of COS.