Meeting the Challenge
A "Voice of the Customer" study reveals insights into the challenges of managing an effective flame-resistant clothing program.
- By Mike Woods
- Jan 01, 2015
For EHS professionals in the oil and gas industries, managing an effective company-wide flame-resistant clothing (FRC) program is a challenging task--the costs are high and risks are great. Direct costs (medical care, recovery and rehabilitation, disability, job retraining) and indirect costs (workers' compensation, lost productivity, increased medical insurance premiums) can push the costs of a single serious burn injury without FRC above $2 million, whereas a comparable event with a proper FRC program may cost a company approximately $50,000.
The oil and gas extraction industries, which include oil and gas extraction, drilling oil and gas wells, and support functions for oil and gas operations1, have an annual occupational fatality rate that is more than seven times higher than the rate for all U.S. workers2. To put this into perspective, a total of 519 fatalities occurred in the U.S. oil and gas industries3 during the five-year period from 2008 through 2012. Of these fatalities, 77–or 14.8 percent–were the result of work-related fires or explosions.
Increases in employment in the oil and gas extraction industries will put more workers at risk, making it critically important to understand the key challenges in managing an effective FRC program for employees and contractors. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of oil and gas extraction workers is projected to increase 16 percent by 20224, and this growth is on top of the 59 percent increase in production and non-supervisory employment that occurred from 2004 to 2014.
Recently, a study of 400 EHS professionals in the oil/gas, utilities, mining, and construction industries was conducted to better understand the challenges faced by today's EHS professionals. Results of the online survey, which was conducted by Mount Vernon FR in conjunction with the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), represent nearly 490,000 employees who wear FRC on the job.
The intent of the study is to highlight the key challenges faced by EHS professionals in order to help reduce the number of workplace-related injuries or deaths and to help them more effectively manage the costs associated with FRC programs.
According to the study, the most significant challenges faced by today's EHS professionals in the oil and gas industries include the following:
1. The need for greater durability. Nearly all of the oil and gas respondents (92 percent) said that they provide FRC to their employees, either exclusively (73 percent) or in combination with a stipend (19 percent). In the survey, 37 percent of the respondents said that the durability of FRC is a moderate to serious problem, and only 9 percent said that they are extremely satisfied with the amount of durability offered today. Durability issues can drive up the cost of an FRC program through the need to replace garments sooner than expected or budgeted. In addition to the monetary challenges, excessive wear and fabric or garment failures can compromise the protection offered by the garment, leaving workers vulnerable and potentially unsafe.
2. The care and maintenance of FRC. Of the oil and gas companies using an outside industrial laundry for their FRC program (52 percent of the total), 40 percent say that the care and maintenance of FRC is a moderate or serious problem. Respondents are most dissatisfied with the amount of fading after laundering (29 percent) and the amount of wear and tear caused by laundering (29 percent). Fading causes workers to question whether the level of protection has faded along with the color, while rips, tears, and holes that occur from the laundry process make FRC ineffective and lead to shorter replacement cycles and higher costs.
3. The selection of FRC for women. The number of women employed in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas industries increased 27 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, and women represented 13.2 percent of all workers in these segments in 20125. With 40 percent of the respondents saying that the selection of FRC suitable for women is a moderate to serious problem, there is an opportunity to improve the fit, color, and styling of FRC in ways that make it more appealing and comfortable for women.
4. The selection of FRC for hot weather conditions. More than seven out of ten respondents (72 percent) said that the selection of FRC for hot weather conditions is a moderate or serious problem, making it the number one challenge faced by EHS professionals in the oil and gas industries. Improving the comfort of FRC for hot weather conditions requires finding the optimum combination of fiber blend, fabric construction, and weight for the specific environmental conditions and job application. A properly executed wear trial--one that follows industry best practices, such as using standard questions and rating scales, and allows for the evaluation of fabric and garment construction separately--is the most effective way for EHS professionals to determine the right FRC for their needs.
5. The selection of FRC for inclement weather. The selection of FRC for inclement weather was rated as a moderate or serious problem by 42 percent of the oil and gas respondents. Respondents indicated that there is a large disparity in the range of FR products offered for inclement weather; low-end rain gear was not seen as durable enough and high-end rain gear can be cost prohibitive. There is an opportunity to provide high quality, value-oriented FRC that helps protect against both the elements and flash fires.
An important part to the solution to these challenges begins with the selection of the right FR fabrics to meet your specific needs. Respondents to the survey do not believe that FR fabrics have become commoditized--in fact, the opposite is true. EHS professionals believe that differentiation does exist from one FR fabric to another, which is evident from their response to the following questions:
- 77 percent of respondents disagreed with the following: "All FR fabrics are essentially the same."
- 46 percent disagreed with the following: "FR fabrics at comparable weights offer the same amount of protection."
When evaluating various FR fabrics, it is important to look beyond price and consider the following criteria:
- Acceptability. Will your workers want to wear it? Does the garment feel good, does it look good, and does it fit well?
- Durability. Will the fabric meet or exceed your expectations for the useful life of a garment, given your specific working conditions? How does it withstand the rigors of industrial laundering? Fabrics that fall short will result in a more expensive FRC program based on a more frequent replacement cycle.
- Functionality. How well will the fabric and garment perform in the work environment? How suitable is it for warmer climates or inclement weather conditions? Does it hinder or distract from the ability to do the job at hand?
The best way to determine the optimum fabric is through a properly executed wear trial. The following "best practices" should be considered in your wear trial:
- Limit the number of fabrics and/or garment styles to minimize confusion.
- Do not involve too many employees, but consider using some from different shifts and areas to ensure consistent feedback across the organization.
- Use standard questions and ranking scales (e.g., 5-point Likert scales) to obtain measurable feedback.
- Allow for the evaluation of fabric and garment construction separately--did they like the fabric but not the garment?
- Ask for written comments to add context to the data.
The selection of the most appropriate FRC provides many benefits to EHS professionals and their company, including:
- A more productive and more satisfied workforce as their FRC enhances their ability to work safely rather than detracting from it.
- The ability to better manage the costs of your FRC program by reducing the need to replace FRC ahead of schedule.
- A reduction in injuries and fatalities resulting from flash fires and electric arc flash.
The FRC supply chain, which includes manufacturers of FR fabrics and garments, will need to work together to help create solutions to these key challenges because EHS professionals can’t overcome them on their own. Focusing on these challenges will help drive meaningful and relevant developments in FRC that will keep oil and gas workers safer, regardless of conditions or gender.
About the research:
The research included a focus group conducted with EHS professionals at the ASSE Safety Conference in Orlando in June 2014. An online survey was then distributed in July 2014 to ASSE members, with 400 EHS professionals in the oil/gas, utilities, mining, and construction industries completing the survey. All respondents had to have input or responsibility for the evaluation, selection, and/or management of the flame-resistant clothing worn by the employees at their location or company. Results of the survey represent nearly 490,000 employees who wear FRC on the job, and the results have an accuracy rate of +/- 4.9% at the 95% confidence level.
1. NAICS 211, NAICS 213111, and NAICS 213112
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health program portfolio (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/oilgas/)
3. Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI); U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics
4. Employment Projections program; U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
5. Women in the Labor Force: A Databook (May 2014); U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.