Is Comfortable FRC an Urban Myth?
Recent fabric and style advances are challenging conventional wisdom.
- By Scott M. Margolin
- Mar 01, 2019
Flame-resistant and arc-rated clothing has been in common use in the USA for close to three decades. For much of that time, it has understandably been viewed as heavy, stiff, scratchy, and/or not breathable—in a word, uncomfortable. And ugly. It didn't look, feel, wash, or wear like regular clothing. As a result, many people didn't want to wear it properly and as often as required or, in many cases, they resisted wearing FRC at all. This led to a plethora of problems, including a less safe and less satisfied workforce, lower compliance, more internal headaches and management issues, and a lower cost/benefit ratio. Sound familiar?
But more recently, major advances in FR fibers, fabrics, garment styles, and brands have been a game-changer. Many new options are now indistinguishable from regular clothing, in terms of both comfort and appearance.
What is Comfort?
You may be surprised by some of the factors that contribute to a person deciding whether clothing is comfortable. Clothing comfort is "a state of wearer satisfaction" that includes a balance of psychological, physiological, and physical properties, and it differs person-to-person and even day-to-day. The first category—psychological properties—may be unexpected, but understanding the issues and their impact on satisfaction can be the key that opens a whole new door to comfortable and happy wearers.
It's important to understand the distinction between what most people think drives comfort versus what actually does, and psychological properties are the lion's share of that difference. Public perception typically focuses on weight, breathability, and hand (softness) as the top three factors; however, the reality is that brand, style, appearance, and fit are the top factors. Of these, none are fabric properties and only fit is physical; the rest are psychological. We gravitate to the brands and/or styles we like and only then feel the fabric, test the fit, and make a purchase decision.
The Psychology of Comfort
People love choice, as a quick walk down the cereal aisle clearly illustrates. The single most powerful tool to build wearer satisfaction in FR clothing programs is to harness the power of choice. No one likes being forced to wear one color of one style of one weight of one fabric all day, every day. Even if that product won every wear test, it is quickly resented. So it's extremely desirable to provide some measure of choice to the individual, even when that choice is from among a handful of garments, preselected by Safety, that meet all necessary compliance and corporate criteria.
Self-image is very important, and clothing is a major piece of the image we each choose to present to the world. Some people focus on the brand of apparel, while others like a certain style (western, athletic, fashion, etc.) or certain colors, or a specific fit. Whichever their prime motivation, everyone likes some control over such decisions and is much happier and more comfortable (and more likely to regularly wear their PPE properly and to care for it well), when they can choose what to buy each year and what to wear each day.
The Impact of Branding
Branding is a huge force in marketing apparel and generating owner satisfaction. And in the last several years, there has been an enormous expansion of brand-name FR apparel. Classic work brands such as Carhartt and major FR brands such as Bulwark and Tyndale have dramatically expanded their lines, while lifestyle brands such as Wrangler, Ariat, and others have made a big impact in the market with stylish FR clothing. Embroidery and other style features are so mainstream on many of these products that they cross over.
The safety director of a large petrochemical facility in Louisiana humorously referred to a segment of these new clothing options as "Saturday Night Jeans." Brand names drive apparel sales, and suddenly the FR clothing market is enjoying the look and feel of popular lifestyle brands from the non-FR world. For those with access, this has already had an enormous positive effect on worker comfort and satisfaction. Safety gets a boost, as well, due to the willingness to consistently wear PPE.
The Role of Style in Garment Selection
Style is another important variable in choice. Until recently, the vast majority of FRC could best be labeled "workwear" and often wasn't something people were happy to wear away from the job. Modern American society has most of us running personal errands on the way to and from work: taking kids to and from school or sports practice, going to the store, hitting a pub or restaurant, or participating in myriad other events. Thus, it's more important than ever to feel comfortable wearing and being seen in "work" clothing away from work.
Style options have exploded, perhaps even more than brands. In addition to the traditional workwear, there are robust offerings in business casual, Western, equine, sports, tech/outdoor, tactical, and (for lack of a better term) "Saturday Night Jeans." There are stylish ¼ zips, fleeces, pullovers, hoodies, and more. And there are several new lines of FRC for women, designed from the ground up to fit the female body and style preferences, rather than just making smaller versions of men's garments. If it's a popular style in non-FR, chances are good that it's now available in FRC. In a world where you can finally have off-the-clock brands, style, and comfort, plus on-the-clock protection and durability, who wouldn't want both?
Greater Comfort Through Technology
Fiber and fabric technology have contributed to the boom in comfortable FRC, as well. Conventional wisdom had been that flame-resistant and arc-rated fabrics are heavier and often stiffer and less breathable than their non-FR counterparts. That worldview is no longer accurate. Each of the six major American FR textile producers has recently released new fabrics with significant innovations, all aimed at reducing weight and improving comfort. Tri and quad blend fabrics are becoming the norm, taking advantage of the best properties of multiple fibers.
In addition to softer, more supple fabric, these blends have reduced weight in standard woven shirts; knit versions are now being used as base layers and are actually lighter and softer than a standard tee shirt. Knits in general were historically a challenge for FR garments, but the new technology has allowed FR henleys, tee shirts, and polos that rival anything in your local sporting goods store. Soft, breathable FR versions are now available in similar weights and styles. Two other notable comfort innovations new to FRC are quick dry and flex or stretch fabrics. The sum of these technology advances is high-performance FRC that can finally match non-FR in weight, flex, softness, and moisture management.
The FRC world is in the midst of a great evolution: from 2-3 fabric options and 3-4 garment brands, little to none of which looked or felt like regular clothing, to dozens of fabrics, dozens of garment brands, and hundreds of styles . . . many of which are indistinguishable from everyday clothing. There have been major improvements across the board in fabric properties such as weight, softness, breathability, stretch, and quick dry. Pair that with the entrance of lifestyle brands and the dramatic expansion of styles, and the world of FRC in 2019 bears about as much resemblance to the old FRC market as the cell phone you own now does to the one you had 10 years ago.
If you haven't been to an industry trade show recently, be prepared to be shocked by the number of FRC booths and the comfort of the garments being shown. This evolution has spawned a huge expansion in options, and many FR programs are taking full advantage. Harnessing the power of choice may be the missing link to creating comfortable, satisfied, safer wearers, improved compliance, greater worker satisfaction, and a hassle-free FRC clothing program for management.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.