Over the past decade the market for flame-resistant (FR) protective clothing has continued to expand. This growth was initially fueled by the OSHA 1910.269 regulation for electric utilities, and it has been accelerated by the recent revisions in the NFPA 70E Standard (Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace), which now requires the use of FR clothing to protect employees exposed to electric arc flash hazards in nearly all industries.

These developments have resulted in a dizzying array of marketing and technical information that can quickly become overwhelming and cloud the relevant issues, causing end-users to ask “what does all of this information mean and how do I compare competitive products?”

This article is intended to give end-users the basic tools to start the process of evaluating competitive products to help identify the options that will best fit their own unique requirements.

The majority of the technical information in the market today was generated by flame-resistant fiber and/or fabric manufacturers. It is appropriate for fiber and/or fabric producers to invest in testing because when electric arc flash or flash fire accidents occur, the protection afforded by the finished garment depends almost entirely on the type and brand of FR fabric; therefore, the type and brand of FR fabric should be the first “product” decision an end-user makes.

Researching FR fabrics

The first step in researching FR fabrics is to search out and evaluate information that was generated using the following three criteria. By doing this you can evaluate different types of FR fabrics on a level playing field and ensure that you’re comparing “apples to apples.”

1) Identify your potential hazard. Exposures such as electric arc flash and flash fire are unique hazards with vastly different characteristics, and the test results do not directly correlate to one another. The results from flash fire testing should not be substituted for electric arc flash testing when evaluating products. Be wary of fiber and/or fabric producers that attempt to draw comparisons between these two hazards.

2) Identify industry consensus standards for the exposure. Fortunately, new industry standards have been developed for electric arc flash and flash fire testing. For electric arc flash, ASTM has developed F1959, which produces an ATPV (Arc Thermal Performance Value). ASTM 2112 was created for employees that work in environments where a potential flash fire hazard exists.

3) Make sure the testing is conducted at independent laboratories. This will help ensure that unbiased and scientifically valid data is being produced. While it is often helpful and interesting to witness testing conducted by a company that has a vested interest in the FR business, there is no substitute for information generated at an independent laboratory. The accompanying chart is an illustration of how evaluating information that falls within these three criteria (the colored circles) can provide end-users with relevant and non-biased information to get an “apples to apples” comparison of competing FR fabrics.

Doing your homework

Now that you have a better understanding of what information you need, you should start collecting literature from companies that produce these products. There is a huge amount of glossy literature on the market, all designed to capture a share of this growing market. While some companies provide information that is comprehensive and relevant, others simply state that their products “meet the standards” and then hit you with glitz and glitter.

As stated above, any product you consider for your protective clothing program must meet the relevant standards, but this shouldn’t be the only consideration. Industry standards are typically only minimum requirements that don’t take many other important performance features into account.

Following these simple steps will help clarify which FR fabric brand will optimize the success of your FR clothing program.

1) Identify and evaluate the experience and knowledge of the company that is producing the FR fabrics. The technology to produce FR fabrics is complex, especially with engineered fabrics such as durable FR cotton and cotton blend fabrics, so it is important to have a solid understanding of the experience and knowledge of the company that is producing and standing behind the FR fabric brand.

2) Fully analyze the actual fabrics. This analysis should include the physical properties and “feel” as well as the technology of the FR engineering process, shrinkage control, internal testing, external testing, documentation procedures and the proven (or unproven) performance in the market.

3) Identify the brands of FR fabrics that are being promoted by companies in the protective clothing supply chain (i.e. garments manufacturers, distributors and laundries). Every year several “new and innovative” FR products are launched at safety trade shows with many incredible claims, yet oftentimes these products disappear within a few years of the initial launch because of some problem or hidden deficiency in the fabric. By auditing the protective clothing supply chain you’ll gain a better understanding of which products have built a strong reputation of proven performance.

4) Seek testimonials from other end-users. Any manufacturer that has an excellent market-proven product should not have any objection to giving you access to companies that have used their products. The feedback you receive from other end-users, including the number of years they’ve been using the product and their satisfaction level, should help you determine whether a product is truly “market-proven.”

After you have selected the FR fabric that will best meet your needs, you can start the process of gathering information and samples from garment manufacturers and service providers. The growth in the FR clothing market has created several new options in garment styles and service options for end-users.

Avoid "smoke & mirrors"

By applying this simple protocol, you can do away with the “smoke and mirrors” that inevitably enters into any growing market. When it comes to something as critical as FR protective clothing, it is important to make sure all your decisions are based on relevant facts. Finally, after a decision is made, the FR fabric you’ve selected should be specified in writing by brand name.

In addition, it is important to require that the fabric manufacturer’s label be sewn into the garment for identification purposes. This will help ensure that a future change to a generic/off-brand fabric that carries a marginally lower up front investment doesn’t lead to employee injuries, program dissatisfaction or significant additional costs downstream.