FR Clothing: Important Tool as OSHA Expectations Get Tougher

With criminal penalties associated with safety regulation looming, many corporate safety professionals are opting to spread worker protection more broadly across their workforces.

The nightmarish scenario that continues to play out in the Gulf Coast region after the tragic explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is more than an environmental and economic catastrophe. It has become an extreme case study on how government officials react when industry fails to meet their expectation that accidents are to be prevented.

Workers prepare to install a natural gas residential service line. As a consensus standard for this job category, natural gas repair and installation crews typically use FR outerwear, including coveralls and high-vis vests.The president of the United States vows to "find the right a-- to kick." Beleaguered BP CEO Tony Hayward is grilled and scolded for hours in a congressional hearing for not doing enough to anticipate and prevent the explosion, find and fire the people who are at fault, and fix the horrendous oil spill. Elected leaders at all levels of government promise angry voters and taxpayers that BP will pay for the disaster not only financially, but also with personal punishment for the individuals whose obvious negligence brought on the calamity.

This type of fallout is more visible and on an exponentially greater scale than what safety professionals work every day to prevent. But in many ways, the general pattern of the reaction is predictable, especially in today's regulatory environment. As a result, many safety officials for the past few years have been increasing their efforts to make sure they will not be put in a position to try to explain why they failed to do everything reasonably possible to prevent or minimize injury to a worker.

One consequence of this heightened awareness by safety professionals is the steady growth in recent years in the use of flame-resistant (FR) clothing by workers across a wide range of American industries. Not only does this trend show no signs of leveling off, but also FR workwear appears to be gaining favor at a faster pace than ever. Many workwear manufacturers and industrial laundry operations report that while workforce reduction in many industries has hurt overall demand for workplace apparel, the FR segment has been a notable exception to the trend.

Many industry experts attribute the accelerating use of FR work clothing to the fact that safety managers are extending the use of FR apparel to more and more workers in more and more job categories. Across all industries where flash fire and/or arc flash hazards are present, safety officials are moving in the direction of casting a wide net as they assess the types of work that are applicable in their specific environments to the protective requirements set by 29 CFR 1910.132, NFPA 2112, NFPA 70E, and other regulatory standards.

Why FR Workwear Usage Has Increased
The need for this precautionary thinking by industry safety officials results, in part, from the nature of OSHA's regulatory approach. Specific minimum standards for protecting workers from burn hazards usually are not spelled out in regulations. Instead, it is the employer's responsibility to protect workers from all recognized workplace hazards by observing consensus standards developed by various testing agencies (NFPA 70E, for example).

The employer also is required to know when to adopt "competing standards," which may add degrees of worker protection appropriate to the employer's specific workplace environment, and must stay up to speed on any special interpretation published by OSHA that could establish protective requirements that apply to a specific type of operation. For most employers, this regulatory approach creates significant gray areas, which safety officials seem increasingly willing to address by erring on the side of caution when it comes to FR workwear.

Better safety education and awareness by safety professionals are obviously important reasons for the more inclusive point of view as to which employees should come to work in FR apparel. But a more aggressive attitude among federal workplace safety regulators under the Obama administration has had a lot to do with it, as well. U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has promised "enhanced enforcement, a forward looking and progressive regulatory agenda, expanded outreach and a relentless commitment to enforcing the law." To make good on that relentless commitment, OSHA has added 130 new inspectors during the past 18 months and has adopted a revised field operations manual that places new emphasis on citing General Duty Clause violations and provides more guidance on issuing willful violations. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Jordan Barab, told the American Society of Safety Engineers last year, "The law says that employers are responsible for workplace safety and health, and there's a new sheriff in town to enforce the law."

OSHA also is pressing for the power to seek harsher criminal prosecution of company officials who allegedly allow workplace conditions that threaten worker safety. OSHA and the Obama administration are backing the Protecting American Workers Act (PAWA), which has been introduced in the House and Senate; the legislation would "subject employers who knowingly put their workers in harm's way that results in a fatality or serious injury to felony prosecution and prison time, equivalent to other federal laws," the administration says.

Not surprisingly, the Justice Department also has voiced support for PAWA. "Adding felony provisions, as proposed, would provide important tools to prosecute those employers who expose their workers to the risk of death or serious injury," said John Cruden, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division. "The Department of Justice supports the strengthening of OSHA's criminal penalties to make it more consistent with other criminal statutes and further the goal of improving worker safety."

With OSHA's penchant for levying fines and the looming specter of tougher and more frequent criminal penalties associated with safety regulation, it's easy to see why many company safety professionals are opting to spread worker protection, including FR workwear, more broadly across their workforces.

Choosing FR Products
Safety officials looking to ratchet up the overall level of personal protection provided to employees have an impressive array of tools to work with when it comes to FR workwear. Treated cotton and cotton blends, the standard in FR product technology for decades, are still widely used to protect workers from flash fire and arc flash hazards. In addition to the FR treated fabrics, tremendous technological strides have been made during the past five years in the development of fabric made from blends of advanced synthetic fibers, such as aramids and modacrylics that are inherently flame resistant.

Interestingly, much of the inherent FR fiber technology now employed in work garments actually originated in recent military applications. The development of battlefield uniforms to protect American soldiers from the severe burns associated with the roadside bomb explosions encountered in the Mideast has helped to spur the innovation now showing up in FR workwear.

The newer types of fabrics make it possible for FR apparel to be very durable, lightweight, breathable, and flexible. These garments get high marks for comfort from employees because they are lighter, cooler, and less motion-restricting than garments made of heavier treated fabric. The comfort factor is extremely important to safety managers wary of the possibility that workers trying to cool off or gain more freedom of movement in FR workwear could wear the garment in a manner that does not afford full protection.

The newer FR fabrics also tend to release dirt and foreign material more readily when laundered, and they generally retain their FR properties through more launderings than treated fabrics. That can result in a lower overall cost per wearing.

Business managers also like the versatility of the garments made from inherently FR fabric. Some FR fabrics meet standards related to flash fire, arc flash, and even high visibility, which can greatly simplify things in the purchasing process and the safety equipment stockroom.

Cost-Effective 'Insurance'
How long safety managers will continue to expand the list of job types for which they require FR clothing is anybody's guess. In the near term, it appears that FR workwear will continue to represent cost-effective "insurance" in a citation-happy regulatory environment. David Michaels, assistant secretary for Occupational Safety and Health at the Labor Department, summed up current OSHA thinking this way in testimony in March before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee: "There are still far too many businesses in this country who continue to cut corners on safety, endangering the health and safety of their workers. Swift, certain and meaningful [monetary] penalties provide an important incentive to 'do the right thing.' "

If the government's reaction in the aftermath of BP oil spill is any indication of how companies perceived to have "cut corners on safety" will be dealt with, the use of FR workwear will no doubt continue to be a useful safety compliance tactic.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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