Turning Down the Heat: Saving Money and Lives with the Right PPE Program

Workplace fires inflict major financial damages on companies and immeasurable impacts on burn victims and their families.

Workplace fires inflict major financial damages on companies and immeasurable impacts on burn victims and their families. Considering the total cost of a fire—in strict monetary terms, as well as in human suffering—all companies would do well to define and administer an effective employee safety program. Thoughtful, informed selection of protective garments should be a centerpiece of any such program.

A look at the facts. In 2013 alone, more than 16,000 industrial thermal burn injuries were reported, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 Approximately 1,470 of those cases resulted in lost time, and more than one-third of the injured personnel were off the job for more than 31 work days. The same year, 148 workers died from industrial fires or explosions. Between 2000 and the end of 2013, 2,300 workers died of burn injuries.

The financial costs are staggering. When a worker sustains a burn injury, what costs can a company expect to bear? Burn injury costs can easily reach millions of dollars spent when considering medical treatment costs, legal claims and fees, potential OSHA fines, etc. Imagine what the cost might be from a large fire involving several workers.

Costs include direct hospital and treatment expenses, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines, insurance costs, liability and litigation costs, and lost productivity. Then there is the complicated matter of replacement labor and overtime wages, all while a company continues to pay the injured employee's wages. Covering an injured worker's absence often means giving their role to a less-experienced employee, which can expose a company to damaged customer relations in the form of delayed shipments, loss of product quality, and worker error. Worse yet, if news of the incident gets out, it can severely impact a company's public image. In any case, the money spent on treating serious burn injuries is money that could have been better spent on process improvements, hiring additional employees, or growing the business.

How burns occur. The skin is the body's largest organ. It consists of complex layers of tissue that serve many functions: it protects us from the elements and damaging microbes; regulates body temperature; and enables the sensations of touch, heat, and cold.

Thermal burns occur when a heat source raises the skin's temperature to the point at which cells are damaged. Normal skin temperature hovers around 90°F; burn injuries begin when the bottom portion of the first layer of skin, the epidermis, reaches approximately 111°F. Skin is destroyed instantly once temperatures approach 160°F.

The severity of burns depends on how long skin is exposed to elevated temperatures and the intensity of the heat source. In a laboratory setting, fire exposure energy is measured in calories per square centimeter (cal/cm2).

Non-flame resistant clothing will burn and melt when exposed to flames. In the case of flame-resistant garments exposed to fire, heat is transferred to the fabric. Even if a victim manages to escape a fire, their heated clothing continues to move residual heat onto their skin, inducing further damage. Damage continues until the skin's temperature returns to a normal state. Even when a flame or other heat source is removed, burn injuries mount until the skin can fully cool.

Evaluating garment choices. The ASTM F1930 ("Standard Test Method for Evaluation of Flame Resistant Clothing for Protection Against Fire Simulations Using an Instrumented Manikin") is a standardized test that assesses the flame-resistant properties of garments in a controlled environment. The test simulates fires of varying durations and intensities and subjects an instrumented, life-sized manikin to total engulfment by flame via a propane jet burner.

In recent tests, researchers compared the properties of several different garment types typically worn on the job. The results provide a dramatic contrast. For example, manikins dressed in a typical non-flame-resistant, 100% cotton garment showed a predicted total burn injury of 86.9%. Some of the predicted burn injury was due to transferred heat; the rest was from the garment igniting and continuing to burn after a three-second exposure to flame.

On the other hand, a garment constructed of inherently flame-resistant fiber did not ignite when exposed to flame. Instead, it limited the predicted burn injury to just 10.7%, with damage largely confined to the head. (Because the manikin's head is unprotected in these tests, approximately 6.5% to 7.0% of burns were to the head.)

In a separate test, researchers compared the performance of the inherently flame-resistant garment to that of another flame-resistant garment, this one made from a post-treated, 88% cotton, 12% nylon blend. Heat exposure was calibrated to simulate the possibility of a higher heat flux fire event or an additional required escape time of one second. For the garment with inherent flame resistance, this level of exposure resulted in a total predicted burn injury of 34.4%. On the other hand, the post-treated cotton/nylon blend resulted in a total predicted burn injury of 69.7%, roughly double that of the garment assembled from inherently flame-resistant fibers.

Test results suggest that for a worker wearing a typical, non-flame resistant garment, expected survival for 20- to 29-year-olds is less than 40%, and continues to fall with age, with 50- to 59-year-olds having an expected survival of less than 10%. In stark terms, 90% of adults aged 50 to 59 who sustain a burn injury of this nature would be expected to die. By contrast, for a worker wearing an inherently flame-resistant garment, the expected survivability is close to 100% across all age groups.

The difference in total burn injury between these garment choices also translates to dramatically different costs. Applying financial models to these findings, at four seconds' exposure the post-treated cotton/nylon blend would result in hospital costs well in excess of $1 million, $650,000 higher than the expected treatment costs of injuries sustained while wearing the garment made of inherently flame-resistant fibers. For workers dressed in the latter, potential treatment costs could be reduced, on average, by close to $1 million when compared to expected treatment costs of typical non-flame resistant work clothing.2

Other considerations. A comprehensive PPE program should also take into account other considerations when selecting flame-resistant garments. For example, wearer comfort is important for preventing heat stress in hot climates. Employers must ensure that their workers are willing to consistently and appropriately wear their protective gear, and the better it feels, the more likely they are to do so. The best protective clothing in the world does little good if a worker doesn't put it on.

The durability of a garment's flame-resistant properties is another critical factor. Unlike post-treated garments, the protective qualities of inherently flame-resistant garments won't wear off or wash away. A longer life cycle will ultimately reduce the implementation costs of a PPE program. A final factor is the care required. The easier it is to wash and dry, the better a garment's long-term appearance and likelihood of being worn.

It pays to invest in a PPE program. A successful PPE program depends on full recognition of workplace dangers, careful garment selection, proper garment use by employees, and the implementation of sufficient administrative and engineering controls.

While that may sound potentially expensive, when compared to the financial impact of even a single injury claim, the up-front costs of a PPE program are modest. For the nominal expense of $125 or less for a well-designed, inherently flame-resistant coverall garment, a worker could be spared significant injuries and a company could save millions of dollars.

Viewed in this way, a PPE program is a small investment when weighed against the financial damages that could haunt a company for years. Implementing an effective PPE program is a logical way to safeguard the well-being of your workers as well as the financial health of your company.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, January 2015. Table A-1, Fatal occupational injuries by industry and event or exposure, all U.S., 2013.
2. Background hospital cost data source: (2014 National Burn Registry Annual Report)

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