Many companies incorporate a wear trial into their process for selecting FR apparel. Both Lippert and Zumstein cautioned that a hazard risk assessment is a necessary step to take before conducting a wear trial. (Glen Raven Technical Fabrics, LLC photo)

Lasting Protection

A hazard risk assessment is a necessary step to take before conducting a wear trial. Only when the risk assessment is completed should the customer conduct a wear trial of fabrics that will meet the anticipated energy levels.

The big story of flame-resistant fabrics and apparel has been the rapid increase of technological developments in the past decade, beginning with FR fibers. Some of today’s FR fabric blends are made of fibers that are sourced globally. The global sourcing of fibers has accelerated and enhanced the efforts of manufacturers to optimize FR fiber performance for use in FR fabrics.

Depending on what you want an FR fabric to accomplish, there is a fabric to meet those specific needs. "You've got multiple choices now that will give you different properties," said Gary Zumstein, vice president technical/development/sales, protective segment for Glen Raven Technical  Fabrics, LLC, explaining in a recent interview that outfitting end users in various markets—oil and gas exploration personnel, utility workers, electricians, wildland firefighters, and others—now relies on increasingly specialized FR fabrics. For example, if the specifier wants FR rainwear to be worn while working on an oil rig located in the North Sea, FR manufacturers can apply a waterproof/breathable FR film to meet the need. There are various fabrics that can be worn for wildland forest fire protection along with FR station wear garments; the FR station wear garments are worn under turnout gear for an additional layer of protection and help reduce response time by eliminating the need to change out of street clothes, which are typically non-FR. FR station wear garments are now designed to be as comfortable as daily non-FR clothing.

"It comes down to what the end user considers more important: Is it comfortable for employees so they wear it properly and compliantly?" he added. "Is it image? Is it, 'I want the best protection for the job hazard?' "

"The biggest change in the marketplace now is the adaptability of these new inherent fabrics," Zumstein said. "They can reduce the cost, they can improve protection, they can be more comfortable, and their colorfastness can be totally different and more durable in washing and UV conditions. They can also be more durable from an abrasion and rip standpoint. Today they're being designed to meet one or many of those qualities."

These inherent FR fabrics have been developed to help reduce the replacement cost of a garment, making the inherent fabric more price competitive to lower-cost solutions such as treated cotton and cotton blends. "The table stakes, you might say, are pretty straightforward: Fabrics need to meet NFPA 2112 and also achieve an arc rating as specified in NFPA 70E. Class I and II are the more common ones. Then it gets into all the other requirements such as: ANSI 107 [ANSI/ISEA 107-2010, American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear], NFPA 1975, NFPA 1977, and other requirements. There are fabrics out there that meet all these other standards," Zumstein said.

Glen Raven produces fabrics that are inherently flame resistant. This term describes fabrics that never lose their FR properties, even after repeated laundering and wear. "You can't wash it out. Most chemicals are not going to really damage the FR property of the fiber or the yarn or fabric because it's built into the fabric. As long as you have the integrity of the fabric, you still have FR properties," Zumstein said. Another type of FR fabric, treated FR cotton, has FR qualities that will last the life of the product, as long as you care for it properly—but the protection can be degraded by using some laundering chemicals, unlike that of inherent FR. Zumstein said he has seen some FR cottons washed 100 times and still retain their FR properties, but that isn't true for some of those fabrics, especially those that are manufactured outside the United States.

Rich Lippert, Glen Raven Technical Fabrics, LLC’s director of business development for protective markets, said another big difference between the two types is how tears, abrasions, and wear affect the garments. "The fabrics constructed of natural substances tend to show wear a lot faster than inherent products," he said.

Key Standards
Several consensus standards are important benchmarks for the manufacturers of FR fabrics and garments, as well as for their customers. Besides ANSI/ISEA 107-2010, the key standards for FR apparel—apparel that protects against flash fire and arc flash hazards encountered by workers in the electrical, oil and gas, chemical, and industrial markets—include NFPA 70E, NFPA 2112, NFPA 2113, and ISO 11612:2015, which specifies performance requirements for protective clothing made to withstand heat and/or flame. Readers of this article likely are familiar with NFPA 70E, NFPA 2112, and NFPA 2113—respectively, these standards concern safety practices to protect workers from major electrical hazards; FR garments for protecting industry workers from flash fires; and, in 2113, selection and proper care, use, and maintenance of apparel that complies with NFPA 2112.

Selection and Care of FR Fabrics
Many companies incorporate a wear trial into their process for selecting FR apparel. Both Lippert and Zumstein cautioned that a hazard risk assessment is a necessary step to take before conducting a wear trial. "Only when the risk assessment is completed should the customer conduct a wear trial of fabrics that will meet the anticipated energy levels," Lippert said.

"Where wear trials are very important is in getting buy-in from the employees themselves," Zumstein said. "Generally, fabric and garment manufacturers will be happy to participate in the cost of those wear trials, within reason, of course."

He suggested that a customer pick two options that fit its criteria—70E, 2112, etc. For instance, someone who needs a category 2 garment rated for 8 cal/cm2 would trial the lightest garment that meets that category along with a heavier alternative, and then let X number of employees wear both garments while engaged in their most extreme duty in terms of temperature and workload. The workers would then switch garments so that, by the end of the trial, the employees have worn both options and can compare what they liked about each in terms of comfort and durability.

"I would make sure the trial lasts more than one day," he added. "I mean, I've seen some wear trials that have been over six months. Such as an oil rig in the middle of the ocean: You want it more than a week to see how the fabric holds up. It really comes down to what is important to that wearer."

He mentioned a customer that had asked for a lighter garment alternative for electricians who worked around big furnaces. "They put them in a lighter FR type garment, and in about two days they said, 'We're burning up!' The radiant heat was getting to them. The employees didn't realize until they tried the lighter one that the heavier garments they had been wearing were keeping that heat from affecting them," he said.

As mentioned above, the NFPA 2113 standard explains how to care for garments that protect the wearer against flash fire hazards, and other standards also cover laundering and care. Garment manufacturers provide washing instructions that are generally found on label of the garment.

An end user who wants to launder his or her apparel at home can reference ASTM F2757-09, Standard Guide for Home Laundering Care and Maintenance of Flame, Thermal and Arc Resistant Clothing. Another standard maintained by the same subcommittee is ASTM F1449-08, Standard Guide for Industrial Laundering of Flame, Thermal and Arc Resistant Clothing. "These three standards are the ones to consult for someone wanting to obtain the industry standard for garment care," said Zumstein. "OSHA recognizes home laundering, but it is still the responsibility of the employer to make sure the employee, he or she, understands how to wash these garments at home," he said. "Now, it's still the responsibility of the employer even if the industrial laundry does it, but if something happens, then you've got an industrial laundry that's responsible also. If you got hurt on the job, the first line would be the employer itself, and then the employer would bring in the industrial laundry."

As for garment maintenance, such as repairing a ripped seam, it is still the employer's responsibility to ensure that an FR garment is repaired correctly. For example, an FR thread must be used to repair a ripped seam. "It is up to the employer to determine which method is best for his or her company and the wearers of FR garments. An industrial laundry can take out a lot of variables in the care and maintenance of FR garments. Home laundry requires the employer to properly train their employees, document, and ensure the garments remain compliant," Lippert said.

The consensus standards also explain when FR garments should be taken out of service. "Some of the determining factors as to when you take garments out of service include: The integrity of the garment is compromised, when there are holes, major tears, worn/thin areas, and soiled to the point that contaminates still remain in the garment after laundering. General staining does not mean that the garment is not clean, but you should make sure that all contaminates are removed.  If not, the integrity of the garment may be compromised, and it will not give you the same protection [as] when it was issued the first time," Zumstein said.

"This could include rips and tears around the collar that cannot be repaired with the approved methods Gary mentioned before," Lippert added—specifically where the garment is starting to come apart and can't be repaired.

"Some end users have expressed concern that dirt and grime on FR garments will compromise the protection," Zumstein said. "Studies/testing have shown that regular dirt won't harm the garment's protection. A stain won't necessarily compromise the garment, but if you have gasoline, motor oil, diesel fuel, or other flammable contaminates, you've got to wash it according to standards or manufacturer's instructions. If you’ve done it properly and removed those contaminates, you haven't compromised the product."

Home laundering may not be the best method to get those substances out—industrial laundering uses higher wash temperatures, stronger detergents, and better laundering equipment to help remove the harmful contaminates found in today's working environments.

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

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