Many in the oil and gas industry rushed to purchase whatever FR clothing was immediately available, often choosing what was priced the lowest. This has proven to be a costly error in more ways than one. (TenCate Protective Fabrics photo)

Flame-Resistant Clothing: What's the Real Story?

Think about the overall wear life of the garment and what the cost will mean long term.

In March 2010, OSHA instituted new regulations stating that FR (flame-resistant) clothing is required for many industries where flash fire and electric arc flash hazards are or may be present. This posed a serious problem for the oil and gas industry and its supporting industries.

Am I at Risk?
Any work that calls for personnel to be in close proximity to any stage of petroleum or natural gas production automatically presents a potential for flash fires, with devastating and often life-threatening results. OSHA's new regulations caused many in the oil and gas industry to rush to the market and purchase whatever FR clothing was immediately available, and often they chose what was priced the lowest. This has proven to be a costly error in more ways than one.

There are many common misconceptions when it comes to FR clothing. Many believe that all FR garments are, essentially, interchangeable. This is certainly not the case. When it comes to FR clothing, there are many aspects that must be examined closely before an appropriate purchase decision can be made.

Isn't All FR Clothing the Same?
No. There are many kinds of FR clothing that need to be carefully weighed before you decide which solution is best for your FR needs. The weight, level of protection, and even the design of garments can and will differ greatly. The comfort, feel, and look of any FR garment depend largely upon the kind of FR fabric from which it is made.

What is perceived as being the "cheapest" or most cost-effective solutions can, in fact, turn out to be more costly in the long run. In the rush to meet the new OSHA requirements, many purchased garments that were NFPA 2112 certified and thought that they had found their FR solution. But just because a garment is NFPA 2112 certified and cheaper to buy initially doesn't guarantee a long wear life. What seemed to be a nominal purchase in the beginning can prove to be a millstone over time.

How Do FR Garments Differ?
There are two distinct kinds of FR fabrics from which garments are made: inherent FR and treated FR. Inherently FR fabrics are engineered to be flame resistant for life, having the FR properties literally built in at the molecular level. The protection doesn't wash or wear out, and the garment will always be FR, no matter how long it is in use.

Treated FR fabrics go through a chemical application process that makes them FR. Over time, the FR properties will begin to degrade and become less and less protective as the wear life of the garment continues. Wear, abrasion, UV exposure, and laundering will shorten the useful wear life of a treated FR fabric. Add to this the fact that the chemical FR treatments applied to fabrics such as cotton often present significant environmental concerns about the effluents of such processes, and you can see how the cost of ownership of these garments will not look as good tomorrow as it might today.

There have also been issues with shrinkage when garments have been made with natural fibers such as cotton that have had an FR treatment applied to them. This can have a serious effect on comfort and the wear life of the garment. It may well seem wise to pay less for a garment today but if that same garment only lasts for one season, then your money will have been better spent on a longer-lasting, more durable FR solution.

The levels of protection also may differ according to which FR fabric is used in a garment. A treated FR fabric may start with a body burn percentage rating of 35 percent, but that may well increase as the FR properties began to fail. An inherently FR fabric will yield the same body burn percentage for the life of the garment. An FR garment or even FR fabrics require only a 50 percent body burn rating to be NFPA 2112 certified, so it's a good idea to investigate what the percentages are when comparing different FR solutions. Many fabrics and garments can pass the 50 percent body burn requirement, but just how a big a difference is there between a 35 percent body burn and a 15 percent body burn? The difference in percentage could mean the difference between life and death.

Nomex® is probably the best-known inherently FR fabric on the market and has long been a favored solution in many applications. But as the years have gone by, the market has seen many options that offer the same inherent protection without the usual stiffness and poor moisture management that make up the bulk of complaints about it in the field.

Oil and gas workers are doing just that: working. And their work takes them into some pretty harsh environments. Hours spent laboring under a hot sun in arid conditions can provide a quick and painful education on the importance of moisture management. Workers need a garment that will "wick," or pull the moisture away from the skin and dissipate it quickly so it can evaporate and keep the wearer cool and dry.

What Now?
There are truly many avenues of exploration and investigation out there for anyone seeking an FR program solution. The most important aspects to be considered should be based on your own risk assessment. Some basic criteria can be a good starting point:

  • Make sure that the FR garment/fabric you choose is compliant and/or certified to all of the appropriate standards and OSHA regulations.
  • Choose the style and weight of FR garment that will best suit your environment and the needs of your workers.
  • Think about the overall wear life of the garment and what the cost will mean long term.

With so many options available and so many outlets for FR garments and fabrics, choosing the right one for your organization can be a daunting task. Always remember that any FR is better than no FR at all and that your needs are not necessarily the needs of everyone in your industry. FR garments and fabrics are not all the same, so be sure to choose the one that will make you feel the most confident in terms of protection, comfort, and durability. Find the facts and dispel the myths about FR, then weigh the evidence and find the solution that's right for you.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Stuart Perry is the Senior Marketing Coordinator for TenCate Protective Fabrics. He has worked in the FR industry for nearly 20 years and has had experience in manufacturing and research and development, as well as marketing. He holds a B.A. degree in Mass Communication/Psychology from the State University of West Georgia and is responsible for all marketing communication.

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