Hot, bulky, too tight or too loose - what starts out as required personal protective equipment (PPE) can become oppressive after four, eight or even 12 hours at work. The temptation for an overheated worker to pull off a glove or hood, roll up sleeves or unzip a coverall for a moment of relief can be irresistible.
Historically, workers wear thermal protective clothing because of mandated safety regulations and requirements. That doesn’t guarantee that employees keep PPE on at all times or even have the right protective clothing suited for a specific task, especially when it comes to occupations that are at greater risk of fire or burns.
Eighty-two percent of workers have observed other workers failing to wear personal protective equipment, according to a study conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional.1 The key reason given is that it is not comfortable.
Demands for better performance
Industry and workers are now demanding high-performance thermal apparel that is increasingly composed of lighter-weight, higher-strength materials that offer the highest levels of protection and durability while also being comfortable to wear. Advancements in specialty materials technology and engineering are resulting in flame-resistant (FR) clothing that increases worker safety by ensuring that it is comfortable throughout an entire work shift.
Comfort is subjective, distinct and different for each individual. Not only does each person have a unique body type, but each person views comfort differently. Apparel and gloves must be designed to protect while also allowing workers agility to complete specific tasks. If gloves are too thick, a hood limits vision, or a coverall is too hot, employees are going to either partially or completely remove them and become more susceptible to burns and injuries.
The wrong approach
It might seem easier and more cost effective for employers to do the exact opposite, to utilize a “one-size-fits-all” or “general purpose” protective clothing program. There are two downsides to this approach.
One, employees not able to select FR clothing that meets their definition of comfort may have higher levels of non-compliance.
A second danger: not prioritizing the threats of different job functions.
For example, it may seem more efficient to put all employees in Category 2 arc-rated clothing whether or not all job functions include an arc hazard for which CAT 2 is designed. It would be logical to assume that CAT 2 garments offer not only better protection against arc hazards, but also heat and flame threats when compared with CAT 1 garments. In many cases the opposite is true. Adapting the fiber content of fabric to optimize arc protection can actually reduce heat and flame protection against short duration flash fires.
The fallout from these practices can be costly. Fines, loss of productivity, turnover and, as a result, loss of revenue are all potential costs. In fact, according to findings from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, burn injuries account for only one percent of all U.S. injuries and five percent of all workplace injuries, but require almost twice as long initial hospital stays at more than twice the cost of non-burn injuries.2
What to consider
You should consider threats beyond an open flame. The most common sources of workplace burns include fire or heat, arc flash, molten metal splash and combustible dust. Contact with hot surfaces such as pipes and machinery should also be considered. Other important questions you should consider when selecting thermal apparel:
- What standards can be applied to help determine what level of protection is needed in the workplace?
- Have there been injuries under the current PPE program that would indicate the type or level of protection is not appropriate?
After FR clothing has been selected based on hazard assessment results and protection level requirements in a specific job function, the next factors to consider are fit and comfort.
Ensuring that a company’s FR PPE is comfortable can greatly benefit the organization, including an increase in productivity and a decrease in employee breaks from excessive heat. PPE that fits properly is not only more comfortable but also may be more protective.
Studies show that tight-fitting FR garments are actually less protective against heat and flames than properly sized garments that leave a small air space between the fabric and the skin. Sleeves and pants legs that are too long can become tripping or machine-catching hazards; if they are too short and there is additional body area exposure.
Why certification matters
There are two certifications that employers and users should be aware of when selecting the right FR PPE for employees:
- NFPA 2112: Standard on Flame-Resistant Clothing for Protection of Industrial Personnel Against Short-Duration Thermal Exposures from Fire
- ASTM F1506: Standard Performance Specification for Flame Resistant and Electric Arc Rated Protective Clothing Worn by Workers Exposed to Flames and Electric Arcs
Essential for material suppliers and FR garment manufacturers, the NFPA 2112 standard protects workers from flash fire exposure and injury by specifying performance requirements and test methods for the components used to make flame-resistant clothing. The ASTM F1506 performance specification includes minimum requirements and associated test methods for heat, flame plus arc flash protection.
It is important to note that certification does not guarantee protection. Certifications are used to set standards for minimum levels of protection. A thorough hazard assessment to identify heat or burn threats can confirm if the FR PPE is appropriate for specific job conditions.
The right FR protective clothing could mean the difference between life and death in a workplace safety incident. Productivity and workplace efficiency are key to success within any business, but remember, ensuring employees are protected and provided with the best possible tools to perform their job leads to business longevity and employee retention.
Although offering choices of FR PPE to increase the perception of comfort may seem like a luxury in the workplace, increased protection and higher compliance can result. While “comfort equals compliance” remains a common phrase in the PPE industry, it is also fair to say that “comfort equals protection and productivity.”
- Alarming Number of Workers Fail to Wear Required Protective Equipment. (2012, October 9). www.investor.kimberly-clark.com
- Dr. Kimberly W. McDermott, Dr. Audrey J, Weiss and Dr. Anne Elixhauser, Burn-Related Hospital Inpatient Stays and Emergency Department Visits, 2013 (H-CUP Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, 2016).