The Evolution of Flame-Resistant Clothing

Flame-resistant (FR) clothing has come a long way from its origins in the lab of French chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, who first discovered that ammonium phosphates and borax were capable of making textiles relatively flame retardant in 1821.

In the early 1970s, employers in the petroleum refining and chemical processing industries started adopting FR clothing programs to help prevent injuries caused by flash fire — an intense and rapidly spreading fire caused by the combination of air and a flammable substance. These companies found that when regular cotton or polyester work clothes ignited, the amount and severity of burn injuries were substantially higher, which greatly reduced workers' chances of survival. By utilizing FR fibers and fabrics in employees' workwear, employers could greatly reduce the severity and amount of burn injuries, and improve their workers' likelihood of survival.

Since these early days, FR clothing development, research and production have continued to improve, making FR fabric a staple for employers in a variety of industries, such as oil and gas, electrical utilities, fire service, and laboratories. Today's FR garments can protect against a variety of hazards — including flash fire, arc flash and molten-metal splatter — by offering ignition prevention or self-extinguishing properties that help prevent continual burning and grant workers potentially lifesaving escape time when exposed to such hazards.

FR fabrics have not only improved in terms of their protection properties, but after 40 years of progress, they are also far more fashionable and significantly more comfortable for workers to wear. With choices ranging from vibrant royal blues, oranges and reds to timeless navy, khaki and denim, the days of FR clothing only being available in a generic, one-color coverall are long gone. The fabrics have also evolved due to companies, like DuPont, Westex and Milliken, engineering new materials that are lighter, sweat wicking and more breathable, while still offering a quality level of FR protection. Additionally, there are now a vast number of clothing styles to choose from, including dress shirts, cargo pants, knit henleys, outerwear and denim jeans. Name brands, such as Dickies and Walls, have now brought their popular aesthetics to the FR market, as well.

In parallel with the advances in FR clothing's functional and design properties are the major developments in regulations regarding FR clothing's practical use in the work place. In 1974, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released CFR 1910.132, its general safety standard for personal protective equipment (PPE). This standard states that PPE — which includes equipment for the eyes, face, head and extremities, protective garments, respiratory devices, and protective shields and barriers — is to be "provided, used and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards of processes or environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards or mechanical irritants encountered." The standard also requires employers to analyze the workplace to determine if hazards are present that require PPE, and if so, select the appropriate types of PPE for the task.

While OSHA's CFR 1910.132 addresses general requirements for the use of PPE, it does not provide specific recommendations for industries at higher risk for hazards, nor does it list criteria to determine if such hazards are present. In light of this need for clarity — especially for the oil and gas industry, which has a prevalent risk of flash fire — OSHA issued a memorandum to this original standard in March 2010.

The goal of the CFR 1910.132 clarification memorandum was to provide clearer enforcement rules so that employers, in the oil and gas industry, would better understand when FR clothing is required. It also sought to express OSHA's position that FR clothing is a necessity in certain applications associated with oil and gas well drilling, servicing, and production operations. The memorandum labels specific activities in the petroleum industry that require FR clothing — such as snubbing, tubing, open hole work, cementing, transferring hydrocarbons, tank heating and many more — and certain circumstances that demand FR protection, such as reaching active gas or hydrocarbon zones during drilling operations.

OSHA's justification for issuing this memorandum was stated as, "While the oil and gas industry has worked to reduce the risk of flash fire incidents, these efforts have not eliminated the occurrence of flash fires, nor the resulting burn injuries and fatalities. The use of FR clothing greatly improves the chance of a worker surviving and regaining quality of life after a flash fire. FR clothing can significantly reduce both the extent and severity of burn injuries to the body."

Prior to the release of the CFR 1910.132 memorandum, the use of FR clothing in the oil and gas industries was not a widely held or mandated practice, making instances of flash fire burn injuries and fatalities relatively more frequent. From 2003 to 2009, 716 workers in the oil and gas extraction industry, exclusively, lost their lives on the job. Thus, the memorandum was issued to help prevent such occurrences and encourage consistency in FR-clothing use among drilling contractors.

The evolution of FR clothing over nearly two centuries reveals how critical that fateful day in 1821, when Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac experimented with the heat-absorbing properties of certain chemicals, truly was. Now, because of the dedication and hard work of FR fabric and clothing manufacturers, like Workrite Uniform Company, the FR clothing industry is continuing to evolve, improve and be refined over time.

Founded in 1973, Workrite Uniform is a business-to-business affiliate of Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company and the manufacturer of the Workrite FR, Dickies FR and Walls FR workwear brands. In 2008, Workrite Uniform published its process for developing and manufacturing high-quality FR garments, known as "From Fabric to FR." Through this process, each and every garment is assessed at every step of its production cycle to ensure Workrite Uniform's products uphold their promises of FR protection. This commitment to involving executives and managers from each manufacturing touch point — from fabric mill partners to Workrite Uniform-owned distribution centers — to continually assess and improve the process has resulted in industry-leading, quality FR apparel.

For the FR industry today, manufacturers are striving to increase garment quality, improve worker compliance, seek higher standards and develop safer environments for workers in hazardous industries –– all in an effort to potentially save lives. To learn more about the FR clothing industry, including FR-clothing standards, visit


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