FR Garment Program Development: Easier Said Than Done
Standards identify the minimum requirements to get into the game. Your requirements may be greater.
- By Mark Saner
- Aug 01, 2011
To many people, all flame-resistant (FR) garments might look pretty much the same. But looks can be deceiving. Developing an FR garment program today can be challenging with the number of new flame-resistant fabrics being introduced into the market, both domestically and abroad. It's important to outline evaluation criteria you will use to ensure you know what you are buying when it comes to protection, comfort, and overall value.
The primary reason for developing an FR program is to provide protection and safety for your employees. And these days, everyone is concerned about getting the best bang for the buck in terms of value. FR garments are an expensive investment for your company, so you want to get the most for your money.
For the past few decades, there have been only a handful of FR fabric and garment manufacturers from which to choose. But the market is exploding today with suppliers, both at the fabric and garment level, because flame-resistant workwear is more expensive than conventional workwear, making it an attractive market for textile and garment manufacturers worldwide. However, there are two ways to get into the FR business. The inexpensive way typically produces lower-quality products, while investing a lot of resources and capital typically produces higher-quality products.
A good approach is to evaluate your options with the goal of finding FR products that offer the best balance of protection, comfort, and value. Because the safety of your employees is the most important factor, the number one consideration is protection.
Factors to consider regarding protection include:
1) Finding the right protection level of the fabric and trusting that it will deliver that same protection over time and after many launderings.
2) Knowing that the next garment you buy from your supplier possesses all of the same qualities as the last garment you bought. Is it consistent in both quality and FR performance?
3) Having confidence in the suppliers, both at the fabric and garment manufacturing level, in areas such as:
- their experience level in FR
- their ability to track every garment back to the original roll of fabric from which it was made
- their practice of following an ongoing testing protocol
- their ability to deliver the same quality product each and every time
- fully disclosing where their fabric is made and who made it
- having garments and/or fabrics certified to industry standards
- using all FR fabrics and findings in the manufacture of the garment
- being financially stable -- will they be there tomorrow if you ever had any issue?
When thinking more long term, it is also important to consider that garments and fabrics meeting only the minimum performance requirements of a given standard may not be enough to ensure the protection of your employees over the life of those garments. Although most legitimate FR products being sold in the United States today meet the standards for which they were designed, the testing may be done from only one lot of production, at one point in time in a laboratory, and after only 25 launderings. Some garments today can last well beyond that -- maybe as high as 100 launderings or more. You should ask the question, Am I confident that the flame-resistant garment I'm buying will provide my employees with the expected level of protection over years in the field?
You need to remember that flame-resistant work wear is secondary protection, to protect the employee in the event of an accidental exposure. This could happen after 10 washings of that garment, 70 washings of that garment, or never during the life of that garment. But the key is to be certain that if the exposure happens, the garment will perform as expected. So it requires careful consideration of what fabric the garment is made from and which manufacturer made it.
Following protection, comfort is probably the next-most-important variable to consider in developing an FR program. This can be a very real issue when you need workers to wear the clothing every day and wear it properly.
Comfort cannot accurately be predicted in a laboratory environment. Typically, you can get test data such as wicking and air permeability; you can feel the fabric both before and after wash, and all of these can be indicators of comfort. But the best way really to know what will work in your conditions is to conduct wear trials with your employees.
Wear trials are important because comfort can be perceived differently, depending on the location and environment. Your working conditions may be hot and dry, as in Arizona, or you may have high humidity, as in Louisiana. Some fabrics may be perceived to be better suited to one environment than the other. Another key factor in comfort can be how the garments are sized and how they are cut overall. Some companies cut smaller, while others have a more generous fit. Features like extra gussets or a pleat in the back result in better ease of movement. And for "non-standard" employees, a manufacturer's approach to creating non-stock sizes can make a real difference. Do they create a "short" size by just cutting off the legs of a "regular" garment, or do they actually adjust the pattern for the arms and torso to proportionally fit a shorter stature? Proportionally cutting the garments will create a much more comfortable fit.
Then there is getting the best value for the dollar. And value is more than just the up-front cost of a garment. If you have to replace garments early because of shrinkage or damage due to fabric strength, the cost per wear on that less-expensive garment might be twice the cost of a higher-quality garment that is stronger and has excellent shrinkage control built in. If a garment doesn't protect after being handled in real-world conditions that may be harsher than what the standards are based on, then it defeats the whole purpose of providing your employees with protection to begin with.
So let's say you've decided on a fabric that you have deemed best meets the hazards your employees face. You might ask yourself whether it matters who makes the garment, as long as it is from your specified fabric. But some manufacturers really do create a more durable product; they use construction techniques such as reinforced snaps, extra bar tack reinforcement stitches, and double rows of stitching on the seams, pockets, and zippers, just to name a few. While high-quality garments such as these may cost a little more, their durability can make them a better value overall.
Meet or Exceed Standards
Another consideration is the difference between meeting the standards versus your real-world conditions. You should evaluate garments on whether they have been constructed for durability, which includes things such as reinforcements in stress areas, seam strength, and stitches per inch.
The garment also should be made from fabric that has been designed to withstand harsher conditions than the minimum requirements on which some standards are based. Factors including whether your garments will be home laundered versus industrially washed, and elements such as water PH, drying time and temperature, and detergent could potentially affect the long-term performance of an FR garment, depending on the fabric. Standards identify the minimum requirements to get into the game, while your requirements may be greater.
Budget pressures are relatively common these days, and this may entice purchasing departments to look only at the initial cost of an FR garment. But there is more to it than that, especially for protective clothing. To make the best choice for safety and economy, check the details for yourself and make sure you get the best protection, comfort, and value for your money.
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Mark Saner is the FR technical manager for Workrite Uniform Company, a position he has held since he joined the company in 2006. He brings more than 35 years of experience in the fire and safety industries to his work, including 29 years in technical support, safety standards and product development for Akron Brass Manufacturing Company. Mark participates as a voting member within a number of national and international safety organizations to help develop, revise, influence and further improve standards for worker safety. For questions related to safety requirements, product performance, and industry standards, contact him at 800-521-1888 or visit www.workrite.com.