Having the right percentage mix and orientation of hydrophilic and hydrophobic within an FR fabric, combined with engineered breathability, is both the art and the science used to create high-performance next-to-skin clothing. (Polartec photo)

Comfort is the Key to FR Clothing Compliance

Employees should look professional in their work uniforms with clothing choices that offer the trifecta of good fit, good function, and that offer modern fashion so workers want to wear their FR clothing.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) non-compliance is a widespread problem that occurs to different degrees on many job sites around the world. It's every safety manager's nightmare that an unworn FR garment, or even undone shirt buttons or zippers, could be the difference between life and death in the event of an arc flash or flash fire workplace accident.

It's easy to place blame on the individual workers; after all, they are the ones who are putting themselves in danger through their own negligence, right? While that may be partly true, a safety manager's FR workwear choices for the company can have a profound effect on PPE compliance rates. Rather than relying on the scratchy, heavy, and immobile garments of the past, we should update our thinking and select modern clothing layering systems to comfortably dress industrial workers for any climate or weather condition.

The Right Tools for the Job
The FR layering system should be viewed as a required tool for the job, no different or less important than any other instruments used by industrial workers. OHS professionals face the added challenge of determining an approved clothing line that accounts for all employees within a diverse variety of environmental conditions.

Ensuring worker safety compliance (properly wearing clothing/gear) can be expected to increase based on the comfort of the clothing system being worn. Being comfortable in their clothing allows workers to focus on the task at hand and helps promote safe workplace behavior. Discomfort from a clothing system may lead to premature worker fatigue and may increase the risk of accidents and personal injury.

Clothing system comfort is often influenced by a number of factors, such as:

  • environmental conditions (i.e., temperature, precipitation, wind);
  • level of physical exertion required for the task at hand;
  • age; and
  • the physical condition of the individual.

When choosing a clothing system, all of these factors must be considered, as well as the nature of the workers' specific tasks. One must also consider the potential change in environmental conditions that can happen during a typical day. For example, in the wintertime, both indoors and out, it's not uncommon for the days to start out very cold but reach a more pleasant working temperature by midday. To adjust for major swings in environmental conditions, wearing a high-performance FR clothing layering system is important. A proper clothing ensemble works fluidly as a system so layers can be added or removed to adjust to the external environment while still providing adequate protection from the flash fire or arc flash hazards associated with the job.

The Ingredients for a Safe Layering System
A modern layering system is comprised of three separate layers: base layer, insulation, and weather protection. Each of these layers has a specific and interrelated role to contribute to the industrial worker's comfort. Below are some specific guidelines in how to choose the right garments for a layering system.

Not All Wicking Garments Are Created Equal
Just because a garment says it wicks moisture does not mean workers should immediately buy it. Many fabrics absorb moisture from the skin, but some are more suitable for cold climates than others.

For instance, cellulosic fibers such as FR cotton rich shirts will wick away sweat but also hold onto excessive moisture that makes a wearer feel cold once the person stops moving. Rather than basic wicking, safety managers should look for garments that transport moisture through the fabric to the surface where it can move to the next clothing layer and dry quickly. Fabric air permeability, or breathability, is also a key to maintaining, with higher breathability often being preferred for base layers. This dynamic effect comes from garments that are made from fabric that combines hydrophobic (water-hating, "always dry" fibers) and hydrophilic (water-loving) wicking fibers. Having the right percentage mix and orientation of hydrophilic and hydrophobic within an FR fabric, combined with engineered breathability, is both the art and the science used to create high-performance next-to-skin clothing.

Note that in hot weather, the base layer may be "the only layer" worn, and similar moisture-management characteristics are desirable for FR clothing worn next to skin. Additionally, fabric arc flash protection ratings are significantly reduced when testing the same fabric when wet vs. dry.

Breathability, Not Thickness, Is Key to Effective Insulation
Insulation is the mid-layer of the cold weather clothing system designed for two key purposes: keeping workers warm while they are working and maintaining body temperature equilibrium during rest. This is why breathability is the most important facet of a great insulation layer.

When discussing insulation, people often think strictly of heavy, bulky garments. The problem with these is that they are not optimal if they create an uncomfortable microclimate within a worker's clothing system. Just like a base layer, the mid-layer must have good breathability so that excess heat and moisture vapor can pass through the garment.

The hard labor that can be part of an industrial job can cause a person to generate a lot of heat and body moisture even during cold working conditions. An insulation garment that does not allow air to travel throughout the layering system essentially acts as an uncomfortable sweat blanket, decreasing comfort and the likelihood of PPE compliance.

Warmth, or the thermal insulation of a garment, is scientifically measured by a value called Clo in a fabric-testing laboratory under the recognized standard ASTM 1868. Creating insulation fabrics with the right balance of breathability and Clo (and with consideration of the other clothing layers in the worn system) is essential when selecting the right garment for insulation.

Also, here's another basic reminder: Don't forget your fleece hat, appropriate gloves, and warm socks, because body extremities are usually the first thing to get cold or uncomfortable during the workday.

The Unwritten Rule of the Job Site: Style Matters
The weather protection layer, often called outerwear, is the lynchpin of an effective layering system. An underrated aspect of outerwear that often goes unsaid among the tough men and women in the oil & gas industry is fashion.

Safety professionals can feel more confident their teams will be wearing their FR clothing when working, even when nobody is watching, if their FR workwear looks good. Employees should look professional in their work uniforms with clothing choices that offer the trifecta of good garment fit, garment function (FR protection), and that offer modern fashion so that workers want to wear their FR clothing.

Folks, it's time to modernize the FR workwear clothing system. While traditional athletes seem to get all of the cool apparel innovations, some of the hardest-working men and women in this country still have to go to work with scratchy, uncomfortable clothing that they hate. Let's start to think about our workers as “industrial athletes” and provide them with the FR workwear they need on "game day" at work.

A proper layering system can reduce fatigue, keep workers comfortable during miserable days, and, most importantly, save their lives.

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

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