Multiuse protective fabrics are designed to protect against numerous types of hazards in one single garment for workers in molten metal environments.

The Need for a Shield Against Steel

It is important to understand the entire spectrum of risks steelworkers are exposed to and consider multifunctional PPE alternatives to protect against each hazard.

NFPA 2112 is widely regarded in the industrial safety industry as the governing standard for personal protective equipment (PPE) used in environments where workers are at risk of flash fire exposure. It mandates for manufacturers and certifying agencies the specifying performance requirements and test methods for flame-resistant fabric and garments to "provide a degree of protection to the wearer, and reducing the severity of burn injuries resulting from short-duration thermal exposures resulting from accidental exposure to flash fires."

NFPA 2112 is specifically written to protect workers from the hazards that primarily contribute to burn injuries, namely direct flame and extreme heat, but these are only two of the dangers steelworkers face in the workplace every day. Yet NFPA 2112 is the standard safety managers in foundries and steel mills across the United States adhere to. Steel companies are in compliance with NFPA 2112 by simply providing flame-resistant wear. But simply meeting the NFPA 2112 requirements does not provide the level of protection needed in all areas of most steel manufacturing facilities.

In a time of tight budgets and changing worksites, this leaves steelworkers in a vulnerable position. With basic flame-resistant PPE, they can be inadequately protected against the substance they handle day in and day out: molten metal. With temperatures ranging from 1,300° F to 6,000° F, one small drop of molten metal splash on the skin could result in a serious injury.

There are alternatives on the market designed specifically to stand up against steel, but it’s a safety manager’s constant dilemma to confront workers swapping out one set of PPE designed for one hazard in a particular area for another set when facing a different risk across the facility. The new reality in many industrial workplaces—foundries and steel mills included—is a trend toward staffing "cross-functional" employees. As more processes have become automated, many workers are now performing multiple tasks across functions in their facilities. With this crossover in their day-to-day responsibilities, workers may come in contact with several hazards and risks in one shift.

Molten metal also emits electromagnetic radiation in the furnace and pouring areas. Foundry workers are endangered because of infrared and UV radiation. Workers sometimes do not recognize or understand that, even when they may not be in impending danger of being hurt, some PPE protocols are designed to prevent problems linked to long-term exposure.

Professionals routinely working with dangerous molten metal substances need a protective solution that can defend them against molten metal splash and radiant heat/electromagnetic radiation while also standing up to direct flame. To meet the needs of workers confronting these thermal hazards with varying risk levels, different fibers and fabrics have been developed that offer multifunctional protection.

Multiuse protective fabrics are designed to protect against numerous types of hazards in one single garment. Performance features of these fabrics in molten metal environments include: molten metal shedding capabilities; flame resistance; radiant heat and radiation protection; comfort and functionality; and durability. Protective fabric and clothing manufacturers for the steel industry are challenged with developing solutions that can satisfy all of these performance requirements.

Protecting Against Molten Metal
Some new fiber blends include proprietary compounds that enable fabrics to better shed molten metal. Sparks and splatter simply roll off the material, making it ideal for use in outerwear applications such as jackets, sleeves, coveralls, aprons, bibs, and spats.

The ASTM F955 Pour Test demonstrates and quantifies a protective fabric's resistance to contact with molten metal and its ability to prevent a theoretical second-degree burn. There are multiuse protective fabrics as light as 8.5 oz/yd2 able to pass the pour test for molten iron and aluminum.

Protecting Against Direct Flame
Truly non-flammable protective fabrics (as opposed to purely flame-resistant fabrics) offer the highest level of protection. They will not burn, melt, or ignite when exposed to direct flame. Even after intense exposure, they maintain their strength and integrity and continue to protect.

A good test for flame resistance is the Vertical Flame test for After Flame. There are protective fabrics on the market that have 0 seconds After Flame, which far surpasses industry standards requiring 2 seconds or less.

Protecting Against Radiant Heat and Radiation
Multiuse protective fabrics may be aluminized to enhance protection against radiant heat and infrared and UV radiation. These fabrics protect against radiant hazards and convective heat in the form of molten metal splash at a fraction of the weight of other alternatives in use, and they offer significantly improved flexibility.

Comfort and Functionality
The weight of a fabric plays a significant role in wearer comfort, and lighter-weight solutions are constantly being developed to minimize the physiological load on the wearer. New multiuse protective fabrics can be up to 60 percent lighter than traditional protective options. This lighter weight increases a wearer’s comfort and productivity as it decreases the amount of muscle exertion and heat stress that builds up over the course of a work shift.

Lightweight protective apparel allows workers to wear multiple layers when undertaking hazardous tasks. Layering is an optimal and flexible solution to increase protection while maintaining comfort. With a layered clothing system, two plus two often equals five when it comes to thermal protection. Thanks to the additional insulation provided by the air trapped between layers, two lighter-weight or lower-rated garments often can provide the same or even better protection when worn together than a single, heavier primary protection layer. Also, with a layered approach, employees can wear heavier, higher-rated outer gear in extreme-risk situations and then remove this clothing when the threat of injury is not as great and still be protected by a lighter-weight protective base layer.

High-quality multiuse protective fabrics are inherently flame resistant, meaning that their thermal protective properties will not wash out or wear away. Protective clothing made from these fabrics can be worn again and again, even under conditions of daily exposure, and can withstand multiple laundry/dry cycles. This long service life provides significant value to users.

While not directly applicable to steelworkers, multiuse protective fabrics may also provide these benefits:

Protecting against arc flash
There are lightweight multiuse protective fabrics available that are rated NFPA 70E Hazard Risk Category 2 or higher (lighter-weight fabrics typically fall into category 1). These fabrics can also have arc ratings over 9 cals.

Protect from the elements
A recent advancement in multiuse protective fabrics is including an encapsulated barrier of silicone that can help shield a worker against harsh weather conditions, reduce wind penetration, and repel water.

Wearing PPE tagged as being FR doesn't make a steelworker invincible to the diverse hazards found in a typical steel mill or foundry, especially when exposure to molten metals is involved. It is important to understand the entire spectrum of risks steelworkers are exposed to in these industrial environments and consider multifunctional PPE alternatives to protect against each hazard. Steelworkers require flame resistance, heat and radiation protection, and a shield against steel.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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