Protection that's woven in
November 5, 2009
Protective apparel has evolved over the years to become a critical tool in a robust workplace safety program. Driven by innovations in flame-resistant (FR) fabrics and apparel design, employers now have many more FR protective apparel selections available to them.
FR fabrics made with fibers that are inherently flame and arc flash resistant â€” such as aramid and modacrylic fibers â€” are innovative introductions to the market that make comfort a viable benefit. With FR protection literally woven into the fabrics, the resulting apparel provides performance benefits that simply can’t be attained with other production methods like coatings or finishes.
While it’s always good to have variety, employers must now understand the available options and match them to the optimal flame and arc flash protection their employees require in their specific workplace environments.
Comfort is key
Workplace studies conclude that the best safety apparel only protects if workers wear it as specified. If the apparel is uncomfortable, non-compliance with regulations and guidelines becomes a real concern.
Protective fabrics made with fibers that are inherently flame and arc flash resistant can provide meaningful comfort benefits. When FR workwear is comfortable, employees are much more likely to wear it correctly and to refrain from making any adaptations that may reduce the garment’s effectiveness.
These features contribute to the comfort of today’s FR protective apparel:
- Lighter weights – Fabric weight is a major comfort factor, especially in warm climates or in warm workplace environments. FR fabrics made from FR fibers tend to be lighter in weight than fabrics that rely on coatings or finishes to provide FR protection. Lighter weight fabrics result in cooler apparel that doesn’t contribute to fatigue over the course of a workday. In workplaces where multiple layers of FR clothing are preferred, lighter weight fabrics can be particularly helpful. High protection-to-weight ratios indicate fabrics that offer optimal protection in comfortable lighter weights.
- Flexibility – Protective apparel that fits and moves with a worker is intrinsically safer because range of motion is not constrained nor is the clothing itself likely to become an entrapment hazard. Flexible fabrics result in apparel that can be tailored for truer fit, another critical comfort factor for workers. Good fit also affects garment performance. When garments fit as specified, workers are less likely to strain or tear seams or intentionally make fit adjustments that violate garment integrity and leave workers vulnerable to flame and arc flash hazards.
- Durable protection – FR fabrics made with FR fibers provide protection that won’t wash out or wear off. These fabrics are very durable, so abrasion wear is not an issue. Solution-dyed fabrics have the added benefit of holding color longer, even in UV-intensive situations. These FR fabrics are easy to care for and stand up to frequent laundering, whether done professionally or at home. The level of FR protection doesn’t diminish, and the fabric doesn’t get stiff or rough.
- Additional innovations – The workwear category has been positively influenced by product innovations launched in the sportswear industry, and many performance benefits found in athletic clothing can now be found in workwear products. By virtue of the fiber construction, FR fabrics with FR fibers can wick moisture to further increase comfort. Some fabrics are also enhanced with antimicrobial additives for odor control, stain resistant treatments and water-resistant additives. Many fabric companies obtain independent, third-party certifications to verify FR performance, sizing and fit, as well as textile and environmental safety.
FR fabrics made with FR fibers do not require additional chemical finishes to achieve desired FR protection levels. That means that fewer potentially harmful chemicals are used in textile processing and possibly released into the environment. In addition, workers aren’t exposed to the chemicals contained in finishes and coatings. Residual chemicals aren’t an environmental issue for the FR fabric that reaches the end of its useful life and is reused or discarded.
For any FR apparel program to be effective, employers must make a commitment to reducing and eliminating workplace flame and arc flash dangers and to identifying and quantifying unavoidable hazards. These measures go hand-in-hand with an optimal safety apparel program. With this two-pronged approach, workers can enjoy more comfortable FR safety apparel while fully benefiting from the protection it is designed to offer.