Workers exposed to conditions that pose a risk for serious, sometimes fatal injuries from arc flash require proper FR garments while in the danger zone. (Square D Services photo)

Choosing the Right FR Fabrics and Apparel

When working with electrical arc flash, it is up to the employer to develop a Hazard Risk Analysis. Each facility is required to complete an assessment that identifies what, if any, risks are present and the severity of each risk.

With as many as 2,000 workers suffering severe burns each year, one of the greatest risks employees face in manufacturing and industrial environments is operating under conditions where the potential for arc flash and flash fire injuries is high. In these environments, it is important that workers utilize the proper PPE to keep themselves safe in the workplace.

Flame-resistant apparel is an essential component of personal protective equipment for personnel working in an environment where contact with heat, flame, or arc flash is likely. Workers exposed to flammable liquids, molten metals, open flame, high-energy electric components, or combustible dusts are at risk for serious, and sometimes fatal, injuries due to arc flash or flash fire. In addition to adhering to safety standards, understanding proper care for flame-resistant apparel is equally important. Precautions must be taken when laundering and mending the garments to ensure the apparel retains its flame-resistant qualities and keeps employees safe.

Traditional vs. Flame-Resistant Fabrics
Traditional fabrics, such as cotton and nylon, are flammable and will ignite and continue to burn while exposed to an ignition source. For this reason, it is imperative that Hazard Risk Analysis personnel and management know the difference between traditional fabrics and flame-resistant fabrics. Additionally, it is critical everyone understands the specific safety regulations that mandate the type of safety protection needed, enabling employers to select the appropriate protective apparel to combat facility-specific risks.

The primary difference between traditional fabrics and flame-resistant fabrics is that flame-resistant fabrics are designed to self-extinguish when the flame source is removed. With traditional fabrics, the garment will continue to burn until no fabric remains, accelerating the likelihood that a burn or potentially life-threatening injury will occur.

Some flame-resistant (FR) fabrics are inherently flame-resistant, while others are treated with flame retardant. Inherently flame-resistant fabrics are created with flame-retardant qualities engineered into the fiber of the fabric. Treated fabrics, such as cotton or cotton/nylon blend, are treated with flame-retardant chemicals and offer high-quality protection from arc flash or flash fire heat-related injuries. The durability of treated flame-resistant fabrics varies based on usage and laundering protocols. Additionally, treated fabrics remain flame-resistant for the life of the garment if properly washed and maintained. All of these garments may lose some or all flame resistance as a result of chemical exposure or improper laundering, repair, and maintenance.

Garment Protection Levels
FR apparel is further separated into primary and secondary categories. Primary apparel is used in situations where the likelihood of exposure to an arc flash hazard is high and falls under HRC levels three and four. Primary apparel is heavier gear, such as a flame-resistant "flash suit." Secondary protection garments are classified for workers in jobs where the most common hazard risks are prevalent, and they fall under HRC levels one and two. These items include daily wear, such as shirts, pants, and coveralls.

Maintenance workers, for example, would wear secondary items, such as FR shirts and pants, as everyday wear while on duty. However, when working on any energized equipment, they don primary protective gear (flash suit) that covers the entire body, prior to performing a task.

Safety Issues and Standards
In the United States, the OSHA general duty clause is a basic building block for creating a safe environment in a facility. Similarly, in Canada, there are regulations regarding protecting employees. However, whether the company is in the United States or Canada, the general duty clause is simply a starting point for Hazard Risk Analysis personnel and management within a business.

In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association 70E Standard is a comprehensive resource that instructs facility managers on how to protect their employees from the heat of electric arc exposure in a manufacturing environment. Canada follows the 70E standard, as well. This standard is important for workers performing operations, maintenance, and demolition on exposed energized electrical conductors.

When working with electrical arc flash, it is up to the employer to develop a Hazard Risk Analysis. Each facility is required to complete an assessment that identifies what, if any, risks are present and the severity of each risk. Then, facility managers can reference the NFPA 70E standard's Hazard/Risk Categories (HRC) to quickly decipher the corresponding garment requirements for their risk level. The HRC is divided by risk levels and outlines the necessary garments and layers regulated for each level, providing a reference guide for implementing proper protection standards.

Care and Laundering
It is imperative to take proper care of FR apparel to protect the life of the garment and keep workers safe. Inherently FR fabrics cannot be compromised during laundering. For treated FR apparel, washing with regular chlorine bleach can remove the flame-retardant properties. Additionally, treated fabrics may lose flame resistance if washed with the combination of hydrogen peroxide and hard water or if exposed to oxidizers, such as hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid, and chlorine-containing chemicals.

Inherent and treated FR garments require separate laundering from traditional fabrics and use of approved wash formulas for FR apparel. If proper precautions are taken during laundering, it can be safe to home-launder FR items.

In addition to laundering, users must comply with specific procedures during mending and repairing garments, as defined by NFPA 2113. When mending a garment, special FR patches and thread must be used for the apparel to retain its flame-resistant properties. Regular household items cannot be used to mend these garments. Additionally, there are size regulations when repairing a tear. If the hole is too large, the garment no longer can be repaired and must be replaced.

Utilizing the proper PPE, including FR apparel, when working in conditions prone to arc flash and flash fire hazards is critical to the safety of personnel and protocol integrity of facilities operations. Understanding the risks in a facility and knowing the safety standards allows users to select the appropriate personal equipment to ensure protection.

By adhering to safety standards, understanding the differences between fabrics, and knowing how to properly care for FR apparel, workers can be protected from potentially life-threatening arc flash or flash fire injuries.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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