What matters most to the end user is the final product

Informed Workers Are Safer Workers: Science Is the Key to FR Technology

End users and wearers of flame-resistant garments should research FR fabrics and manufacturers to make sure they specify those fabrics from reputable suppliers that will meet their unique needs.

There are various ways FR fabrics can be made flame resistant. Unfortunately, marketing spin has created misperceptions among decision makers about the value of each method. Changing industry standards mean that, more and more, employers and companies are responsible for protecting their employees by providing personal protective equipment such as FR. Here's information you should know about the different types of FR and what to look for in the buying process.

How Are FR fabrics Made Flame Resistant?
A common marketing approach in FR workwear is to compare "inherently" flame resistant garments to "treated" FR fabrics or engineered blends. Biased sales literature frequently implies that one FR process is better than the other and that FR properties of "treated" or natural fabrics wash or wear out, while those of "inherent" or synthetic fabrics do not. However, if done correctly, both paths can engineer life-of-the-garment flame resistance.

The terms "inherent" and "treated" represent an over-simplified way of classifying FR products. "Inherent" refers to the input fiber or material, while the term "treated" is used to refer to an FR process. There is a great deal of science that goes into the process of properly and effectively manufacturing an FR fabric. Using only one word to identify the entire process is flawed. Choosing inherent FR products over treated FR products, saying the first is better than the latter, is to make a comparison that is not based on science. There are many different inherent and treated FR fabrics in the marketplace, and they can have vastly different performance. Using the terms "inherent" and "treated" fails to properly classify the complete product and its performance under real-world conditions.

Ultimately, the words "inherent" and "treated" are simply not sufficient to determine product performance or FR durability. Just because an FR fabric is treated or engineered does not automatically result in FR properties that wash or wear out. While this may be true with some off-brand or generic FR fabrics, it is a huge generalization to categorize all FR blends or engineered products in this manner.

Generic classifications of FR fabrics can include “88/12s,” meta-aramids, para-aramids, modified acrylic (modacrylic), FR rayon, and FR cotton. However, these terms tell us nothing about FR durability, comfort, shrinkage, wear durability, or performance during a thermal event. Off-brand FR products initially perceived as more cost effective can often be more costly in the long run. Why? It's because of flame-resistant durability issues, as well as the risk and cost associated with an accident in which a worker is not properly protected.

When generic FR fabrics aren't engineered or tested properly, laundering and FR durability can cause issues that compromise worker safety and program efficiency. It is important to note that this could include fabrics identified as "inherent" or "treated." An FR fabric supplier's quality control process will ultimately affect your bottom line and impact how frequently your company and its employees are spending money on new or replacement garments. 

All flame-resistant fibers commonly used today for industrial protective apparel are engineered by humans to be flame resistant. This means that what is commonly marketed as "inherent" could actually be synthetic fibers that begin as naturally occurring flammable substances. There are many examples of inherent FR garments in the marketplace today that even contain non-FR fibers. Inherent fibers also can be treated with FR chemicals to further improve their FR properties.

Inherent fibers are manmade from chemicals that will not support combustion in normal atmospheric conditions. Inherent fibers can be expensive and uncomfortable, so inherent FR fabric is typically a blend of inherent fibers and other fibers, including flammable fibers such as cotton, nylon, and polyester. By blending the fibers, inherent FR fabric becomes more comfortable and breathable in a way that does not diminish the flame resistance. The quality process and controls during the fiber production and yarn spinning, as well the manufacturing of the fabric, are key to flame-resistant durability, just as they are with treated fabrics.

On the other side, treated products begin with a flammable fiber or fabric and use flame retardants to impart the FR qualities to the fabric; what is important is how the fabric is engineered to be flame resistant. This process varies between companies and, similar to inherent fabrics, the FR process and quality controls are key to the flame-resistant durability.

Finally, it's important to understand that a single product can be both inherent and treated; they are not mutually exclusive. Combinations of inherent and treated fibers are elements of some of the more advanced FR technologies today. In fact, the true focus should be on ensuring the FR engineering has been done and not how it has been accomplished. Terms like "inherent" and "treated" attempt to identify the way the flame-resistant properties are engineered into the product. However, what matters most to the end user is the final product’s performance and durability of its protective abilities to laundering and a worker's environment—not  how that flame resistance is achieved.

What to Look For When Selecting FR
At the core of FR clothing protection is fabric—and not all fabrics are created equal. Each FR fabric category has its own pros and cons. Understanding the qualities of the FR fabrics (and fabric manufacturers) is key to maintaining an effective clothing program with a consistent product. Proper protection starts with FR fabric that is market-proven after significant investment in research and development to create a quality product.

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a perfect FR fabric, and differences exist among brands within FR fabric categories. Industry standards, such as those from ASTM and NFPA, usually represent minimum performance levels and don’t indicate performance of protective fabrics over time. Plus, compliance alone does not adequately protect workers. Consider that an FR fabric’s construction (weave and fiber content) may not be appropriate for your specific situation. Performance beyond meeting minimum industry standards means getting the product out there in the real world, not simply looking at a laboratory specification sheet.

Ultimately, end user wearers should look for manufacturers that specialize in FR fabric, utilize superior and well-maintained equipment, and have specially trained staff. Combined, these factors give a manufacturer control over the engineering process. Decision makers should consider the FR fabric and garment manufacturer as a partner in their process. Quality suppliers bring more to the table than just a piece of fabric in order to help end users make good decisions.

When lives are at stake, your FR should be guaranteed FR for the life of the garment, regardless of the fabric category or marketing spin. High-quality FR is comfortable for the wearer, and top brands can look and feel just like everyday non-FR clothing. The most experienced FR brands will offer a true guarantee of FR durability backed by decades of market-proven experience.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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