Insect repellents, especially those using DEET, are highly flammable and can compromise the AR/FR protection of a garment. Bug spray should be used with caution around AR/FR garments. (iStock photo)

AR/FR Garment Considerations Often Overlooked in Summer

Especially in the summer months, employee comfort is a critical factor as wearer comfort directly impacts a user's want-to-wear experience.

While arc-rated (AR)/flame-resistant (FR) garments are a key component of thermal exposure safety programs throughout the year, certain summer conditions pose specific, if challenging, dilemmas for safety managers. The basic premise of AR/FR garment care, regulated by industry standards, is the same throughout the year, yet the environmental and seasonal impacts of the summertime invite us to review some commonly held beliefs and examine whether they are in line with the best practices of our industry.

Misconception #1: Changes to proper wear, like rolling up long-sleeve shirts, will not impact a garment's AR/FR protection.
In Reality: Any improper alterations or wear measures can seriously impact a garment's protective characteristics. From rolling sleeves to replacing buttons or trims with non-FR grade options, any deviation from the manufacturer's usage guidelines or from consensus standards compromises the garment's effectiveness and ultimately an employee's safety.

Consider: Especially in the summer months, employee comfort is a critical factor as wearer comfort directly impacts a user's want-to-wear experience. Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing helps meet the comfort and breathability needs of those in extreme heat or high-temperature environments. In addition, specifying AR/FR garments with cotton blends, given its inherent characteristics, or performance fabrics with moisture-wicking technology help mitigate those issues. Color choice can also play a role in increasing comfort. Dark-colored AR/FR garments attract and trap heat, which increases fabric surface temperature. By contrast, light-color garments draw less heat overall.

Misconception #2: AR/FR garments cannot help with, and if anything increase, heat stress risk factors.
In Reality: Advances in AR/FR fabrics can help to mitigate heat stress-causing factors. These fabrics— lightweight blends and engineered cotton blends—allow safety managers to balance hazard protection and breathability in order to keep workers cooler and more comfortable on the job.

Consider: Although it cannot replace primary heat stress prevention factors like hydration, scheduled rest, and provided shade, the moisture-wicking properties of breathable, trusted AR/FR fabric blends ensure that sweat is wicked away, promoting evaporation and radiation dissipation to enhance the body's built-in cooling mechanism. These technologically advanced fabrics still provide NFPA 2112 certification and offer NFPA 70E Category 2 protection, meaning overall FR protection is not sacrificed.

Misconception #3: Bug spray can be used in conjunction with AR/FR garments.
In Reality: Insect repellents, especially those using DEET, are highly flammable and can compromise the AR/FR protection of a garment. Bug spray should be used with caution around AR/FR garments. Various sprays, especially when applied directly onto the garment, can ignite and even propagate a flame when exposed to a thermal source, meaning the self-extinguishing property of AR/FR fabrics is directly compromised.

Consider: Much like fabric softener or bleach, bug spray is another everyday, seemingly innocent care item that may jeopardize an AR/FR garment's ability to perform within specifications. Certain types of bug spray can exacerbate an already dangerous situation, so a best practice is to apply bug spray only to your skin if it is necessary to use.

There are some insect repellents compatible with FR clothing on the market today. Be sure to check that any insect repellents making the claim they are "safe for use on FR clothing" meet the applicable ASTM standard requirements, such as ASTM F1506 tested via method ASTM D6413 on spray-exposed FR fabric.

Misconception #4: It does not matter what kind of base layer I wear underneath an AR/FR garment.
In Reality: A base layer can be helpful in keeping a worker cool; however, not all base layers can be worn underneath AR/FR garments. In fact, many popular, non-FR base layers, which incorporate manmade fibers such as acetate, nylon, polypropylene, and spandex, cannot be worn because they present an additional hazard if exposed to an arc flash or flash fire.

Consider: These manmade fibers, when exposed to the extreme heat of an arc flash or flash fire, will melt and severely damage the skin. In order to comply with consensus standards such as NFPA 70E or NFPA 2113, base layers, too, must meet certain criteria. NFPA 70E states that natural—defined as flammable but non-melting—textiles may be used if appropriate arc-rated garments cover the non-FR base layers to prohibit ignition, while NFPA 2113 requires base layers to be made of flame resistant or non-melting fabrics altogether. With AR/FR fabric advancements, it is possible to source a comfortable, performance-driven base layer that is also appropriate for flash fire or arc flash protection.

Misconception #5: No matter the task at hand, wearing an AR/FR garment will provide the protection I need.
In Reality: As directed by the hierarchy of risk controls, personal protective equipment (PPE) should be the final defensive layer once appropriate steps are taken toward elimination, substitution, and engineering and administrative control measures. PPE cannot and should not be used as the only form of protection, nor is it an unbeatable barrier.

Consider: AR/FR garments, part of many PPE programs, are secondary PPE designed to help shield a worker from short-duration thermal hazards such as flash fire and arc flash. These garments are not suits of armor, so they cannot block a thermal hazard indefinitely. If you are looking at arc flash protection, varying incident energies or PPE categories exist under different electrical working conditions. So while AR/FR garments can provide arc flash protection, confirm the garment provides the appropriate arc rating for the task at hand. Make sure the arc rating of the garment or layered arc rating of a layered clothing system is higher than the incident energy or meets the PPE Category of the specific electrical task.

It is easy to assume your PPE program is ready for the summer months, but armed with these best practice considerations, you can help refine and sharpen your company's safety protocols to clear up common misconceptions and best protect your workers.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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