Standards in a Pandemic: When PPE Jumped into the National Spotlight

Brian P. Shiels discusses the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of safety standards, and the future of PPE.
JP Ervin

Brian P. Shiels

Brian P. Shiels is Service Line Manager at ArcWear, a Division of Kinectrics. He is also a member of ASTM International and has been actively involved in the development of personal protective equipment (PPE) standards.

When COVID-19 emerged as an international safety concern, PPE was thrown into the media spotlight. ASTM played a key role in the response, refining our knowledge of what sorts of protection were effective in fighting the spread of the disease. ASTM also made its standards public in order to raise awareness for as many people as possible.

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In interview with ASTM, Shiels spoke about the path that led to his involvement with standards development. He also spoke about the role of ASTM in the response to COVID-19 and the future of PPE standards.

How did you decide to become involved with ASTM International’s work on personal protective equipment (PPE) standards? What parts of your background contributed to your interest in this work?

In graduate school, my research was focused on protective clothing. Performing tests on various materials used in PPE naturally led me to standard test methods. ASTM International quickly stood out as the premier standards development organization in the area of PPE.

ASTM and PPE in general were thrown into the spotlight following the emergence of COVID-19. Can you speak to the role of ASTM standards in the pandemic response?

The ASTM process uniquely positioned the organization to play a significant role in the rapid response of standards. The ASTM process allows for balloting of new and revised standards at any time, with a 30-day ballot window. With this process in place well before the onset of the pandemic, ASTM’s committees were well positioned to respond very quickly with new COVID-related standards.

What are some of the examples of ASTM standards related to PPE that you see as particularly important during the last two years?

The standard specification for barrier face coverings (F3502) stands out as the most relevant example of a PPE-related standard that has made a significant and immediate impact. Once it was determined that cloth face coverings were beneficial in slowing the community spread of COVID-19, it was immediately evident that a standard specification was necessary to ensure that products on the market are evaluated against minimum performance specifications.

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The committee on personal protective clothing and equipment (F23) stepped up and developed this standard incredibly quickly, all while still strictly adhering to ASTM regulations.

What are some of the specific ways that F3502 contributed to our use of face coverings?

Before the development of this standard, there was no standard specification for the public to point to when selecting cloth/barrier face coverings. Facemasks were being constructed without any performance criteria, many of which were being made at home by the wearers. ASTM F3502 helped ensure wearers of cloth/barrier face coverings were receiving a known level of protection from the products.

Were there any lessons that you learned during the pandemic, either personally or as a committee?

Both personally and as a committee, I think we all learned that business could still be conducted effectively without in-person interaction. Although most tend to prefer the in-person interaction, it was a nice show of resilience from committees like F23 to be able to continue producing world-class standards, despite not being able to come together at committee meetings.

How do you see the emergence of remote/hybrid meetings shaping the way committees do business going forward?

Every committee seems to be handling this differently. Some are thriving in the remote world and may very well carry out all their future meetings remotely. Others couldn’t return to in-person meetings quickly enough. Most committees, however, seem to be adopting a hybrid approach. Even in the absence of a pandemic, committee members are all carrying on day jobs as well. So it’s not uncommon at all for travel schedules to conflict. The emergence of hybrid meetings has allowed even more participation from more members all across the globe.

What do you see as future priorities for the committee on personal protective clothing and equipment?

As hazards continue to evolve, F23 must remain ready to respond with new or revised standards for PPE to address those hazards.

Not everyone who contributes to standards development expects their work to receive the extensive national media coverage that F23 has received. Did you ever foresee this happening when you became involved with standards development?

PPE affects every person in some way or another. In the case of a global pandemic, there is naturally a higher focus on PPE and on the standards surrounding that market. This isn’t the first time PPE has come into focus, and it certainly won’t be the last.

What are other important areas of PPE, either because they affect us in crucial ways or because they open up future standards development?

As new technologies emerge across various industries and workplaces, one key factor to consider is how these technologies interact with existing PPE. One example is in the exoskeleton/exosuit world. These devices are rapidly advancing and allow today’s worker to do many more things. However, there may still be other hazards in the workplace that require PPE. Understanding the interaction and ensuring interoperability of exotechnology with PPE is paramount for overall worker safety. We must avoid solving one problem with the exotechnology while creating a new problem by limiting interoperability with the necessary PPE.

Brian P. Shiels is Service Line Manager at ArcWear, a Division of Kinectrics. He is the immediate past chair of the committee on standards (COS), a member of the ASTM international Global Collaboration Forum for Personal Protective Equipment, and a member of ASTM’s board of directors. For his ASTM contributions, Shiels has received Awards of Appreciation, Service Awards, and an Award of Excellence.

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