What is fire resistant clothing?
Let's start at the beginning with a flame-resistant clothing definition. Based on the name alone, it might be easy to assume flame-resistant clothing is entirely or even mostly fireproof. Is that true?
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As it turns out Flame-resistant clothing — often abbreviated as FR clothing — refers to any clothing items that are designed and specifically manufactured to protect wearers from potential intermittent flames and thermal exposure.
It means that the garment's flame-resistant properties ensure it will resist catching fire, and if it does catch fire, it will not continue to burn once the source of combustion is removed. Flame-resistant clothing can and will burn when introduced to open flame from a flash fire, arc flash, combustible dust explosion or other fire sources. Remember, FR clothing is NOT fireproof. It is after the flame source is removed that the FR "magic" happens. Flame-resistant workwear will not contribute to the severity of burn injury.
To break this definition down further, we can look at the specific ways in which FR clothing is engineered to protect the wearer from injury due to flames. These clothing items will not easily catch fire, and even when they do, they are designed to self-extinguish. If you get exposed to a brief, intermittent flame while wearing this clothing and your clothing catches fire, it will naturally extinguish itself. This ability causes the wearer's risk of burn injury to plummet and can often provide the wearer with valuable time to escape the unsafe environment.
These attributes work together to provide a far greater chance of escape and survival if the wearer finds themselves suddenly in the middle of a flash fire, an electric arc or some other unexpected thermal problem that has the potential to cause injury. In situations like these, fire-resistant clothing can be the difference between being severely injured or escaping unscathed.
What should I wear under my flame-resistant clothing?
If flame-resistant clothing is designed to protect you from flames, heat and other similar environmental concerns, are there any additional measures you can take to make the clothing more effective? Additionally, are there any practices you should avoid that might make this clothing less effective?
The garments you choose to wear underneath your flame-resistant clothing have a significant impact on your safety and the effectiveness of your FR clothing. Whenever you wear these clothes, you should always take care to wear only non-melting garments underneath them.
There are two primary reasons for this caution. The first is that by doing this, you're essentially adding a second layer of FR protection. Even if your first layer of outerwear gets damaged or burned, you will still have a second layer to protect you. The thickness of air insulation between the two layers also helps keep you safe.
Another reason to dress in non-melting underclothes is the intense environment you may be working in. Even though your outer layer provides protection, it's still possible your underlayer will be affected by the heat and begin to melt or become overheated. If temperatures and conditions are extreme enough, these bottom layers of clothing may even ignite and cause serious injury.
Isn't All FR Clothing the Same?
No. There are many kinds of FR clothing that need to be carefully weighed before you decide which solution is best for your FR needs. The weight, level of protection, and even the design of garments can and will differ greatly. The comfort, feel, and look of any FR garment depend largely upon the kind of FR fabric from which it is made.
What is perceived as being the "cheapest" or most cost-effective solutions can turn out to be more costly in the long run. In a rush to meet the new OSHA requirements, many purchased garments that were NFPA 2112 certified and thought that they had found their FR solution. But just because a garment is NFPA 2112 certified and cheaper to buy initially doesn't guarantee a long wear life. What seemed to be a nominal purchase, in the beginning, can prove to be a millstone over time.
What is FR clothing made of?
There are two distinct kinds of FR fabrics from which garments are made: inherent FR and treated FR. Inherently FR fabrics are engineered to be flame resistant for life, having the FR properties built-in at the molecular level. The protection doesn't wash or wear out, and the garment will always be FR, no matter how long it is in use.
Treated FR fabrics go through a chemical application process that makes them FR. Over time, the FR properties will begin to degrade and become less and less protective as the wear life of the garment continues. Wear, abrasion, UV exposure, and laundering will shorten the useful wear life of a treated FR fabric. Add to this the fact that the chemical FR treatments applied to fabrics such as cotton often present significant environmental concerns about the effluents of such processes, and you can see how the cost of ownership of these garments will not look as good tomorrow as it might today.
There have also been issues with shrinkage when garments have been made with natural fibres such as cotton that have had an FR treatment applied to them. This can have a serious effect on comfort and the wear life of the garment. It may well seem wise to pay less for a garment today, but if that same garment only lasts for one season, then your money will have been better spent on a longer-lasting, more durable FR solution.
The levels of protection also may differ according to which FR fabric is used in a garment. A treated FR fabric may start with a body burn percentage rating of 35 percent, but that may well increase as the FR properties begin to fail. An inherently FR fabric will yield the same body burn percentage for the life of the garment. An FR garment or even FR fabrics require only a 50 per cent body burn rating to be NFPA 2112 certified, so it's a good idea to investigate what the percentages are when comparing different FR solutions. Many fabrics and garments can pass the 50 per cent body burn requirement, but just how big a difference is there between a 35 per cent body burn and a 15 per cent body burn? The difference in percentage could mean the difference between life and death.
Oil and gas workers are doing just that: working. And their work takes them into some pretty harsh environments. Hours spent labouring under a hot sun in arid conditions can provide a quick and painful education on the importance of moisture management. Workers need a garment that will "wick," or pull the moisture away from the skin and dissipate it quickly so it can evaporate and keep the wearer cool and dry.
Not all fire-resistant clothing is made from the same fabrics. There are multiple different choices available, and no choice is perfect. Each comes with different benefits and hazards. Each company is best served by choosing the fabric that will be most suited to their needs and working environment. What keeps an employee safe in one location may not be exactly what keeps an employee safe in another location.
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Most flame-resistant clothing is made from fabrics that are a blend of several different materials. These materials are almost always synthetic. They have been carefully engineered and designed to be self-extinguishing and slow to ignite.
Here are a few of the common fibres with inherent flame-resistant qualities commonly used to create FR clothing.
Modacrylic: These are the most popular and standard options available today. These fibres are often used as part of a blend to create several different flame-resistant fabrics. These various combinations of fibres work together to create fabrics that can easily stand up to several types of standards and regulations.
Nomex: This is another type of fibre that has inherent flame-resistant qualities. Unlike modacrylic fibres, Nomex can create FR garments on its own. It doesn't have to be a standalone, however. It can also be combined with other materials such as Kevlar. Nomex® is probably the best-known inherently FR fabric on the market and has long been a favoured solution in many applications. But as the years have gone by, the market has seen many options that offer the same inherent protection without the usual stiffness and poor moisture management that make up the bulk of complaints about it in the field.
Kevlar: These fibres are certainly flame-resistant, but have many other additional properties such as high strength. Kevlar can create flame-resistant clothing, as well as many other different items. When used to make FR clothing, Kevlar is often combined with Nomex.
Each type of flame-resistant fabric will come with its pros and cons. Kevlar, for instance, is extremely heavy-duty but comes with a high price tag because of it. There are no specific flame-resistant clothing dangers, however, and all are designed to protect the wearer from hazardous heat-based conditions.
Is cotton flame-resistant?
One commonly held idea is that if you wear clothing made from 100 per cent cotton, it will protect you from heat, electric arcs and flames. However, this is a misconception, because 100 per cent cotton clothing is still flammable. When exposed to an ignition source, it will catch fire and will not extinguish itself the way flame-resistant clothing will.
While cotton will not have the same risk of melting and burning fabrics like nylon and polyester will, it is perhaps even more likely to catch fire. Based on this information, we can definitively say 100 per cent cotton clothing is not a suitable substitute in situations where flame-resistant clothing is recommended or required.
What are the benefits of flame-resistant clothing?
The benefits of flame-resistant and flame-retardant clothing alike are obvious. They allow workers to conduct work in potentially hazardous locations with a greatly reduced risk of injury. While no flame-resistant clothing is guaranteed to prevent every injury, every time, the risk while wearing these specialized garments is significantly lower than it would be if the worker was wearing everyday clothing.
With fire-resistant clothing, the promise is not that the garments will never catch fire. They are designed to resist igniting, and will generally fulfil this purpose in all but the most extreme situations. The great strength of flame-resistant clothing, however, is that it prevents fires from spreading. Even if the clothing does catch fire, it will almost always extinguish itself quickly.
These self-extinguishing properties mean the wearer is less likely to suffer from burns and will have time to retreat from the hazardous environment without the added danger of spreading the fire via their clothing. The fire will be more likely to remain contained, and the worker will be more likely to escape unharmed.
Flame-resistant clothing allows workers to do their jobs in environments and situations that would otherwise be too hazardous, all with a very low risk of injury.
How should flame-resistant clothing fit?
When it comes to FR clothing, the rule of thumb is that a looser fit offers more protection. When a garment is looser, there is an added layer of air between you and the garment, providing extra insulation against the heat or flames that you may encounter while wearing the clothing. If you wear skin-tight flame-resistant garments, the fire will be almost directly up against your skin. Even with the clothing as a protective layer, it's safer to allow this air cushion between your skin and the fabric.
However, you should not take this as an invitation to buy the baggiest and loosest-fitting clothing you can find. While this might initially seem like a good idea, it could very likely lead to disaster. It's important to remember baggy clothing can easily snag on surrounding objects and hazards, trapping you and leaving you immobile, or ripping and leaving you vulnerable to environmental hazards.
The best solution is to find an in-between fit. Your clothing should be neither form-fitting nor baggy. It should have a slightly loose fit, but shouldn't hang off your body so much that it is at risk for catching on nearby objects.
When buying flame-resistant clothing, keep in mind that, like most clothing, it will shrink a little bit during the first few items of washing. With this concern in mind, you may want to buy a slightly bigger size than you ordinarily would so the garment has room to shrink down to the correct size.
What Standards Cover Use of FR Clothing?
From the overarching General Duty Clause to specific FR clothing-related documents, employers are required to understand and comply with the following standards:
The General Duty Clause requires employers to:
"…furnish to each of his employee's employment and a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."
OSHA's 29 CFR1910.269 states:
"The employer shall ensure that each employee who is exposed to the hazards of flames or electric arcs does not wear clothing that, when exposed to flames or electric arcs, could increase the extent of injury that would be sustained by the employee. This apparel standard applies to all apparel worn by an employee exposed to the hazards of flames or electric arcs."
OSHA's 1910.132 ruling states:
"Except as provided by paragraphs (h)(2) through (h)(6) of this section, the protective equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE), used to comply with this part, shall be provided by the employer at no cost to employees."
When does my flame-resistant clothing need to be replaced?
While there are certainly some cases in which your FR clothing is damaged, but easy to repair, there are also cases where the garments are damaged beyond repair. When this happens, there's nothing to do but to throw the items out and buy replacements.
Here are a few of the key warning signs it might be time to retire your flame-resistant clothing and buy replacements:
- The clothing has tears or holes that are too large to be repaired safely and correctly.
- The fabric itself is too worn and threadbare to provide adequate protection against the environmental hazards you will encounter.
- The clothing has been stained with a flammable substance that can't be removed through cleaning.
- The garment has come into contact with bleach.
- The collar, cuffs or seams are torn or otherwise frayed or open in some way.
- If your flame-resistant clothing begins to exhibit any of these signs, it's important not to delay. Buy a replacement item right away.
You might think to yourself, "This garment is still fine. I probably should buy a replacement, but I'll wait for another week or another month." This type of thinking is understandable, but it can also be extremely dangerous. You have no way of knowing when an accident will strike. What if, on the one day you need to be able to rely on your FR clothing to protect you, it is too damaged to do its job correctly?
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Who washes FR clothing?
Highlighted by an interpretation letter and following OSHA Law Blog article, OSHA regulations 29 CFR 1926.95(a), the section states that protective equipment "shall be provided, used, and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition" but does not elaborate on how this should be achieved.
This could mean that the employer is responsible for the cleaning, or this could be achieved through home laundering. However, the employer is responsible for making sure that laundering does not compromise the protective properties of the clothing.
According to the letter,
"If employers rely on home laundering of the clothing, they must train their employees in proper laundering procedures and techniques, and employers must inspect the clothing on a regular basis to ensure that it is not in need of repair or replacement. If an employer cannot meet these conditions, then the employer is responsible for laundering the FR and arc-rated clothing."
Practically speaking, home laundering is a risky proposition. If an employer is unwilling or unable to comply with the requirements for home laundering, then the employer is responsible for laundering the FR and arc-rated clothing.
How to wash and dry FR clothing?
The good news is that for most FR articles of clothing, the cleaning process is fairly simple. You can feel free to clean these garments at home in your ordinary washer and dryer, using your choice of laundry soap. You should hardly have to change anything from your normal washing and drying procedure to clean your FR clothing.
It is important to note, however, that it's inadvisable to use chlorine bleach with your FR clothing. It's also a good rule of thumb to avoid using fabric softeners. Finally, for the best results, launder these clothing items separately from the rest of your clothes. If your FR clothes are extremely soiled and need a deeper cleaning than usual, wash them on the hottest setting allowed on the clothing tag.
Most FR clothing includes at least a small percentage of cotton, meaning they are susceptible to shrinkage during the first several cleanings. If you're concerned about your garments shrinking, you can help prevent this by hanging the items to dry on a drying rack instead of running them through the dryer.
If you have additional concerns about your specific FR clothes, we recommend looking at the tags of your clothing. While every manufacturer is different, you should be able to find more individualized washing instructions there. In general, however, the guidelines listed above should provide plenty of information to get you started.
How many times can you wash FR clothing?
Most flame-resistant clothing is built to be tough and to withstand a lot of wear and tear. Therefore, a few trips through the washing machine are not likely to damage it. You should feel confident in washing your FR garments as often as they need it. Unless you are using any of the items we discussed above that are not recommended — such as fabric softener or bleach — you can wash your FR clothes as often as you like.
With so many options available and so many outlets for FR garments and fabrics, choosing the right one for your organization can be a daunting task. Always remember that any FR is better than no FR at all and that your needs are not necessarily the needs of everyone in your industry. FR garments and fabrics are not all the same, so be sure to choose the one that will make you feel the most confident in terms of protection, comfort, and durability. Find the facts and dispel the myths about FR, then weigh the evidence and find the solution that's right for you.