Is Protection Part of Your PPE’s DNA — Or Just Tacked On?
By Rich Lippert, QSSP
In the world of flame resistant (FR) work wear, there are two key categories to choose from: garments made from “inherent” FR fabric and those made with “treated” FR fabric. While both offer code-compliant protection from workplace hazards like arc flash and flash fire, there are critical differences between them — particularly over the lifespan of the garment.
All FR garments work to ensure that exposure to flame will result in minimal harm to the wearer. They are made to act quickly in the event of a life-threatening hazard, igniting with great difficulty and quickly self-extinguishing — but not all FR garments accomplish this goal the same way. And when it comes to the differences between inherent and treated FR fabrics, we can see they present critical safety distinctions.
First, let’s examine the distinguishing properties of a “treated” FR fabric. For work wear made with this kind of fabric, flame-resistant protection is often achieved through an applied chemical finish after the finished fabric has been completed. That, or the chemical finish can be added during the manufacturing process, being applied to the woven or knitted fibers directly.
When these kinds of fabrics are exposed to flame, they undertake a specific process to mitigate the damage as quickly as possible. From chemical reactions that take place when a certain temperature has been reached, to charring (instead of burning) to off-gassing in order to prevent combustion, treated FR garments can provide protection in a variety of ways.
However, where these treated fabrics can fall short is in the laundering and maintenance phase. Treated FR garments must be laundered and cared for in a very specific way, so as to not disrupt the chemical finish that was applied during manufacturing. Exposure to elements like chemical bleach, hydrogen peroxide, hard water or oxidizing chemicals in the workplace can drastically reduce the effectiveness of the garment’s protection.
And, perhaps most significantly, it is very difficult to determine the garment’s protection effectiveness simply by looking at it, which can result in an employee relying on a garment that he or she does not know is no longer safe.
As garments made with treated FR fabric often possesses more overall mass than inherent FR fabric, they often seem to the wearer to offer more protection. More mass seems to equal more layers of protection between the wearer and a hazard. However, at higher protection weights, this extra mass can significantly reduce comfort levels for the wearer, leading to non-compliant (and unsafe) behaviors such as rolling up shirtsleeves or unbuttoning collars.
Inherent FR fabrics, on the other hand, draw their strength from the fact that flame-resistant protection is manufactured directly into the fiber itself. The protection is part of the garment’s polymer structure — the “DNA” of the fabric — and thus cannot be laundered or worn away over time. Unlike treated garments, where the FR protection is added on after the fiber or fabric itself is created, the actual structure of an inherent FR fiber is itself non-flammable, meaning its FR properties are permanent and unchangeable.
Whereas work wear made from treated FR fabrics must use chemical reactions to extinguish flame and reduce harm to the wearer, inherent FR fabrics will not ignite under normal oxygen content levels — they will only char, thus greatly reducing hazardous exposure to the worker.
Another one of inherent FR fabric’s most remarkable features is its ability to maintain integrity over time.
While some might object to the typically higher up-front costs of work wear created with inherent FR fabrics, they are more often than not shown to have greater long-term value and produce a greater return on investment. Though PPE made from treated FR cotton blends might be cheaper in the short-term, it will inevitably have to be replaced much more frequently, adding up to greater costs over time. Additionally, if that same PPE is not laundered or cared for properly, it may also result in life-threatening human costs as well.
Because non-inherent FR treatments are typically applied to organic materials like cotton, workers often find these garments more comfortable and flexible. But great strides have been made over the years when it comes to comfort and performance of work wear made from inherent FR fabrics. By utilizing moisture-wicking processes, more breathable structures and lighter weight fabrics, this new generation of PPE made from inherent FR fabrics can hold up in a wear trial against cotton or other organic fibers — and without any reduction in protection or integrity.
When it comes to maintaining compliance and safety for workers in hazardous environments, there are always a multitude of factors to consider. For many years, safety managers were faced with a choice between providing work wear that was either safe but risked non-compliance or comfortable but perhaps inadequate when it came to preventing workplace injury. Fortunately, advances in manufacturing and innovation now mean that work wear made from inherently flame-resistant materials can provide both an uncompromised level of protection while remaining comfortable, breathable, and durable enough to meet the needs of the workers who depend on it.