Take FR Safety to new heights

March 1, 2008
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Adopting a flame-resistant (FR) protective clothing program can seem like a daunting task because of the abundance of industry safety standards. Three organizations alone — the National Fire Protection Association, the American Society of Testing and Materials, and the International Organization for Standardization — have issued nearly 30 detailed safety guidelines for “best practices” to protect workers from accidental electric arc flashes, flash fires, molten metal splashes and more.

As a result, a wider array of protective apparel products is now available in more FR fabric options than ever before. So, where do you begin if you’re charged with implementing an FR apparel program for the protection of your workers? You could try using the RADAR philosophy:
  • Recognize potential workplace hazards.
  • Analyze fabric technologies.
  • Determine apparel/laundering needs.
  • Access FR fabric manufacturer’s history.
  • Review all applicable regulatory standards.
Recognize hazards
Selection of FR garments begins with a hazard analysis of potential energy exposures in all work areas. Most employers use the National Fire Protection Association’s standard for electrical safety in the workplace (NFPA 70E), which outlines five Hazard Risk Categories based on specific job tasks and levels of electrical exposure. Categories range from hazard risk category 0, which allows for the use of untreated 100-percent cotton, to category 4, which requires a double layer switching coat and pants. The more exposure a worker has to an electrical hazard, the higher the NFPA 70E category. For example, someone simply reading electrical panel meters would generally fall into category 0, while someone working on high-voltage equipment would be working in a category 4 environment.

About 95 percent of FR apparel requirements generally fall into Hazard Risk Categories 1 (minimum ATPV 4.0) and 2 (minimum ATPV 8.0) for “everyday work clothing.” Previously, in some “everyday” instances, companies opted to outfit their employees in Category 1 garments (an untreated cotton tee-shirt worn under a 4.5-oz. long-sleeve FR shirt) because the combination was relatively lighter to wear and provided an arc rating that achieved Category 2 protection (greater than ATPV 8.0). Recent clarification issued by the NFPA 70E committee, however, stipulates that untreated cotton base layers should not be used. Instead, the committee says suchlayered systems should now consist entirely of FR rated garments.

Another way to assess hazards is by using software programs that track individual worker movements through multiple work areas, process that data, provide a detailed analysis of the exposure risk levels, and supply FR apparel recommendations.

Analyze fabric technologies
Comfort plays a key role in convincing workers to wear their FR apparel throughout an entire workday. Traditionally, workers complained that FR apparel was too warm when worn for prolonged periods. Today, many new breathable FR fabrics have helped overcome this problem. In fact, it’s often impossible these days to distinguish between FR and non-FR apparel lines. In addition to becoming “cooler,” FR apparel has also become increasingly stylish.

Some of the more widely used FR fabrics are noted for their comfort and protective features. Products may include: 100-percent treated cotton fabric; cotton/high-tenacity nylon blend, which is able to wear up to twice as long as pure cotton fabrics; and synthetically extruded fabric containing dissipative fibers that also help to provide protection from static buildup.

Since no single FR garment can meet the protective needs of every user, uniform service providers continue to expand the range of their product offerings. Many providers, for example, offer FR garments manufactured with fabric that can help to protect wearers against molten aluminum spills. Others offer apparel with water- and wind-resistant characteristics. And still others are developing FR blends for relatively lighter weight single-layer Category 2 protection. New technology exists that is inherently FR, minimizes body burn in flash fires, is single-layer 70E Category 2 compliant, manages perspiration and is lightweight.

Determine apparel/laundering needs
FR apparel manufactured using cotton/nylon blends or synthetic fibers is designed to significantly outlast those manufactured from 100-percent cotton. Depending on the harshness of the work environment, a blend or synthetic fabric could offer the best overall economic value.

Note: Extreme care should be taken if wearers of FR apparel launder their own clothing. Many common household washing detergents, softeners, chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide have been shown to diminish the FR properties in treated fabrics and create film buildups on synthetic fibers that could support ignition. For these reasons, and because of rising concerns about workplace contaminants being transported from the workplace to the home, companies often turn to uniform rental service providers for FR apparel and servicing needs. Besides ensuring proper laundering, such providers routinely inspect apparel for wear and tear and either replace or mend apparel as needed.

FR apparel must be mended/repaired using “like materials.” Non-FR materials should never be used to repair garments. The typical consumer does not maintain a supply of FR fabric and FR thread, making it very difficult to ensure proper maintenance. Furthermore, service providers can maintain large-scale inventories to ensure quick replacements that may be required as a result of damage, wear or resizing issues. Note 2: Be cautious about personalizing FR apparel, especially with the use of applied emblems. Although OSHA standards do not specifically address this issue, the NFPA and ASTM International have taken positions that nothing should be placed on clothing that may increase the extent of injuries should garments become ignited.

Access manufacturer’s history
Who is the company providing your FR fabrics, apparel and service? What’s their track record with respect to quality? These are key questions because the expertise that generally comes with producing fabrics and apparel is the result of many years of experience with processes and procedures that are likely proprietary in nature. You want maximum protection at the best price possible. Furthermore, it’s no secret that we live in a litigious society. As a result, selecting the right fabric and apparel manufacturers can help ensure the best overall protection possible for your employees and your continued business success.

Review regulatory standards
Literally dozens of standards and regulations apply to protective apparel worn in environments where electric arcs, flash fires, molten spills, and other thermal and fire accidents can occur. Web sites where you can find such information include: Using RADAR can help you isolate essential areas to think about when considering your FR apparel needs. RADAR can also help you develop appropriate questions to ask a uniform service provider. Ultimately, the overall task of selecting appropriate FR apparel may not be easier, but RADAR can certainly help make it less daunting.

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