Quality is way up, FR durability and protection are a given in many domestic brands, fabric weights are dropping, comfort is increasing, and styles and brands have begun to rival non-AR/FR street wear. (Tyndale Company, Inc. photo)

A Double-Edged Sword: The Power of Choice in FRC

Here's how you can safely increase comfort and compliance and reduce complaints.

Many PPE programs suffer from low wearer acceptance and high complaint levels. One of the most common—and avoidable—causes is giving individual wearers little or no choice or control over what they must wear. No one likes to be told what to do, much less how to do it. People are hardwired to react negatively to mandatory language, even when they know it's in their best interest.

Allowing individual choice is a proven and extremely effective way to remove or dramatically reduce resistance. But given the dramatic expansion in arc-rated/flame resistant (AR/FR) fibers, fabrics, and brands in recent years, making informed choices that ensure worker safety and comfort has become far more complex and has increased the possibility of introducing potentially serious pitfalls. It is more important than ever to work with a subject matter expert (SME), a highly knowledgeable, trusted resource upon whom you can rely for honest and complete information. With the help of an SME, you can safely harness the power of choice.

Power of Choice
Even when all the options are roughly equivalent, people prefer to have choices. Choice equals control, and everyone likes to feel empowered. This core tenet of the human psyche changes little, if at all, as we mature, and it remains a prime motivator of behavior throughout our lifetimes. So is it any wonder that so many personal protective equipment uniform programs struggle to achieve and maintain high levels of wearer compliance, much less satisfaction or even happiness?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the programs that are most likely to generate pushback are "no-choice" programs that dictate a specific pant and shirt in a specific style, made from a specific fabric, and in a specific color. These kinds of programs can introduce risk on many levels: safety risks resulting from workers not wearing the AR/FR PPE at all or not wearing it properly; safety and financial risks by not properly maintaining their AR/FR PPE out of resentment; morale issues and reduced worker efficiency; and significant managerial time lost to administering the program, including handling complaints and related problems. The common refrain from frustrated managers is usually some variation of "I'm not in the PPE uniform business. I don't want to spend hours every week on PPE."

This approach to PPE is rooted a decade or more in the past, when two or three fabrics and a handful of garment styles had more than 90 percent of the market. At that time, there simply wasn't much choice within the industry. However, there has been significant innovation in AR/FR fabric options and garment styles during the last few years. Today's AR/FR PPE bears about as much resemblance to the last generation AR/FR as your smartphone today does to the flip phone you had in 2005. Quality is way up, FR durability and protection are a given in many domestic brands, fabric weights are dropping, comfort is increasing, and styles and brands have begun to rival non-AR/FR street wear.

As a result, the hottest trend in AR/FR PPE in the last few years is the movement from no-choice uniform programs into managed choice programs (often called "catalog" programs). These programs have proven effective in eliminating many of the issues inherent in no-choice programs. In fact, the top five reasons cited by safety managers for moving to managed choice programs are increased compliance rates, greater worker comfort, access to future innovations, improved morale, and cost reduction.

If your company requires a uniform image and fixed colors, don't despair; you can still take advantage of most of the power of choice. Choice program can provide dozens of fibers, fabrics, weights, garment styles, and brands for employees to choose from even within a given requirement. For instance, if your company requires a light blue shirt over khaki pants, these differences will be invisible to your customers but make a major difference to your wearers.

But be careful! While choice is a powerful motivator, with many significant benefits in an AR/FR PPE program, there are potential pitfalls you need to identify and avoid. These challenges are easily eliminated with a few simple steps: early and continuing access to a trusted SME, tight specifications, and ongoing program monitoring.

An SME, Your Trusted AR/FR 'Safari Guide'
Less than a decade ago, it was relatively easy to become familiar with AR/FR technologies and their respective pros and cons. There were only two to three dominant fabrics, a handful of major national players in AR/FR garment manufacturing, and a few large safety distributors. This contrasts sharply with the industry today. In the last several years, there has been an almost exponential explosion of AR/FR fibers, fabric blends, garment brands, and distribution channels.

Some of these new options offer excellent quality and high performance, while others offer neither. And unfortunately, some of the options out there today are downright dangerous. When AR/FR PPE can be found online, at gas stations and bait & tackle shops (really!), and in too many styles and brands to believe, it’s extremely difficult for the average safety manager to keep up—much less ensure your workers are wearing apparel that meets the necessary standards. It's suddenly a jungle out there. So unless your company is willing to invest the time and money to develop and maintain a true AR/FR clothing expert on staff, it's highly advisable to make sure you have an AR/FR "safari guide."

The best place to find the necessary combination of expertise, experience and current market knowledge is from reputable, top-flight value chain/service providers. Look for suppliers that are actively involved in industry safety standards organizations and have a track record of helping companies like yours comply with evolving safety standards.

Tight Specifications
Providing vendors tight specifications is another important step to safely and successfully implementing a managed choice program. When writing specifications, there is an understandable tendency to default to certain broad, basic requirements, such as: Cat 2 (formerly known as HRC 2); 8 or 12 calories, UL-certification, NFPA 2112 compliance, inherent fabrics, etc. However, there can be significant and consequential differences among compliant products or products that appear to have similar or identical protective ratings.

Safeguards for key factors, such as durability of flame resistance, shrinkage control, consistency of commercial production, and many other vital characteristics, are often weak or missing in simple default specifications. A qualified SME partner can help you understand the standards and their limits, as well as best practices employed by peers across the country, to write and enforce a tighter spec.

Regular Monitoring
Once a quality choice program is up and running, it should be monitored at regular intervals. This includes adjusting the program over time as you acquire feedback on which garments your employees prefer. For best results, select a vendor or service provider with a true quantitative ratings system and report capability. Re-engage with your AR/FR safari guide to ensure that you're aware of innovations, new brands and technologies, issues, trends, and what’s coming soon, along with any pending updates to industry standards that could impact both your program and the safety of your workforce.

Still not convinced it's a jungle out there? Here are a few recent real-world examples of the dangers of buying just anything on the open market that claims to be compliant:

  • 143 utility workers were hospitalized for nausea, vomiting, and rashes because an imported generic of a known and trusted AR/FR fabric brand turned out to be toxic. In addition to the human and medical costs, the utility lost the $3.5 million spent on the garments themselves.
  • A North American garment manufacturer was caught using counterfeit UL certification labels on its AR/FR garments, claiming certification where none existed.
  • In June 2017, AR/FR garments were advertised and sold online. The sale pages were perfect replicas of two major, trusted American AR/FR garment companies. But the seller was not affiliated with these companies or any of their official distributors, and the buyer had no way to know this. These counterfeit garments even had "FR" printed on the front but were made of entirely non-FR, flammable cotton.

While the power of choice has the potential to be a double-edged sword, you can eliminate the risk by working with a trusted, experienced supplier. Choice can work miracles for wearer comfort, satisfaction, compliance, and complaint reduction, but the explosion of choices also makes it more difficult and time consuming to separate high quality and reliable garments from lesser offerings. Furthermore, the consequences of failing to properly evaluate options can be both dangerous and expensive.

The biggest trend in AR/FR PPE today is companies moving to Choice programs. Though this trend has the ability to work wonders for worker satisfaction and compliance, it's vitally important to maximize effectiveness and avoid possible pitfalls by relying on a trusted, experienced AR/FR guide, writing and enforcing good specs, and periodic monitoring and adjustment as desirable new products become available.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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