In an effort to be cost effective, practical, and to keep employees comfortable, real-world applications have brought on an increasing demand for garments that are suitable for use in environments with multiple hazards. (Carhartt photo)

Durable Flame Resistance: Comfort and Quality

Real-world applications have brought on an increasing demand for garments that are suitable for use in environments with multiple hazards.

There are three basic uses for industrial flame-resistant clothing:

  • Flash fire exposures: This apparel is needed by workers in refineries and for combustible dust exposures and oil and gas operations. These flash fire-rated (FFR) garments are designed to be work clothing that needs to be comfortable and durable for daily work and may, at some point, be exposed to a flash fire. Durable flame resistance is critical, but comfort is also paramount.
  • Arc flash exposures: Most electrical workers, electricians, and all line technicians for power lines require arc-rated (AR) garments. Like flash fire-rated garments, these garments are primarily work wear that once in a career may be exposed to an arc flash. They also need to be durably flame resistant and comfortable.
  • Firefighting: Structural firefighting and wildland firefighting typically require inherently flame-resistant fabrics due to the continual exposure and durability requirements in the field. These garments are exposed multiple times to heat and flame.

Twenty years ago, there were about five to six fabrics that were flame resistant, and there were two types of fabrics: treated flame-resistant fabrics and inherently flame-resistant fabrics. Today, there are many new flame-resistant fabrics, either treated or inherent, that provide workers with comfortable options.

Inherent fabrics are made with fibers that are designed to be flame resistant. Flame resistance is part of the fibers' DNA and is a permanent characteristic of the fabric.

Treated fabrics are cotton or cotton-blend fabrics that are treated with flame-retardant chemicals that change the molecular structure of the fabric, creating a permanent bond.

Sometimes there is misinformation in the marketplace that creates concern about whether the flame resistance can be washed out of treated fabrics. It's important to know that flame-resistance cannot be washed out as long as the recommended laundering instructions on the garment are followed. Therefore, workers who require FR clothing should opt for styles made with whichever fabric provides them the most comfort, as long as it meets the safety requirements established by their employer.

Why is comfort so important in flame-resistant garments? The day-to-day needs of the clothing are primarily function, not protection, so getting the worker to wear the clothing for the "one in a million" incident is difficult if the clothing is not comfortable. Fortunately, most workers work entire careers in potential hydrocarbon flash fire and potential arc flash environments without ever having an incident.

Understanding the need for comfortable FR protective clothing, scientists at several companies made two critical discoveries in the 1980s that improved on FR cotton while working to create military uniforms for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army. They discovered methods to treat cotton to make it as durably flame resistant as synthetic inherent fibers, but with additional comfort. In the 1990s, other scientists discovered that adding a small amount of nylon to FR cotton could increase the wear life, thus making the FR cotton/nylon more durable than simple treated cotton.

The Importance of ASTM F1506 and NFPA 2112
Previously it was common to have garments marketed as FR but not certified for any hazard, but with the advent of ASTM F1506 and NFPA 2112, this has changed. In the past, garments were commonly rated separately for each hazard, but in an effort to be cost effective, practical, and to keep employees comfortable, real-world applications have brought on an increasing demand for garments that are suitable for use in environments with multiple hazards.

Over time, NFPA and ASTM developed washing requirements and a battery of tests to ensure that treated cotton fabrics maintained permanent flame-resistant properties to help protect workers in arc flash and flash fire incidents. The two standards, ASTM F1506 and NFPA 2112, have helped to keep non-performing treated fabrics out of the U.S. market.

Many industrial workers face more than one hazard while at work, and the development of multi-hazard PPE products can save employers money while keeping the worker protected and even more comfortable. In light of this, many companies require dual hazard garments that meet both NFPA 2112 and ASTM F1506. Specifying these two standards will ensure that the garments are dually compatible with flash fire and electric arc exposures and will be the most durable (to wash) garments the market can provide.

For the price of one quality garment, an employer can protect their employees from two or more different hazards (electric arc and flash fires). There are no reported cases of failure in the flame resistance in any certified dual hazard garment. The peace of mind that durable, flame-resistant clothing offers is important for the worker, the safety officer, and the manager. Protected, comfortable workers will not only to be an asset to companies, but also more productive in serving the customers. Keep them safe so they can outwork them all.

The FR clothing industry has capitalized on these fabric improvements in order to expand offerings that provide protection and improve wearability for workers. In addition to protection and basic comfort, many FR garments are made with fabrics that offer desirable features and additional benefits through technologies such as sweat-wicking, anti-odor, or durable water repellent (DWR).

Additionally, there's a wide range of style and layering options, including base layer, shirts, sweatshirts, pants, outerwear, bibs, coveralls, and accessories.

The bottom line is that with the proliferation of improved flame-resistant fabrics and styles on the market today, comfort and protection are no longer a compromise. Employers and their crews now have many choices, and as long as the fabrics—whether treated cotton or inherent—meet the testing standards described in this article and the garment laundering/care instructions are followed, they can be assured that the flame resistance will last the life of the garment.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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