Why Fire Retardant Clothing?
The use and availability of flame-resistant (FR) clothing has become much more common due to the continued development and updating of industry safety regulations and voluntary performance standards. NFPA 70E, a national consensus standard that establishes safety guidelines for workers exposed to electrical hazards, is a prime example. 70E has driven changes across numerous businesses and facilities where employees access electrical systems and energized components. Many sites contain a variety of electrical work hazards, illustrating the increasing call for FR clothing.
When it comes to FR, you have to ask two questions:
1) Does my company have employees who need to be in FR?
and if the need is established . . .
2) How do we comply with industry regulation or standards?
The Importance of FR for Those Exposed to Workplace Hazards
FR clothing protects the wearer through the following attributes:
- Self-extinguishes or resists ignition
- Does not melt onto skin
- Provides thermal insulation from heat
- Resists breaking open and exposing skin
- Reduces burn injury and increases chances of survival
Some sobering statistics reinforce the importance of FR:
- Most severe burn injuries and fatalities are caused by non-FR clothing igniting and continuing to burn.
- More than 2,000 people are admitted to burn centers annually with severe arc flash burns.
- Every single day in the United States, an arc flash explosion occurs in electrical equipment that sends a victim to a burn center.
Even with safety regulations and standards such as NFPA 70E in place, accidents still occur. Working de-energized is always the recommended practice, but that is not always possible. In those cases, wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment is very important in reducing injuries.
As you just read, the word reducing was used, not the word eliminating. Some people think wearing FR clothing means there is no risk of burn injury. That is not the case. FR clothing is designed to keep predicted body burn area (second degree or higher) under 50 percent. Keeping burn injury below this threshold has been reported to improve survival rates significantly, as the following chart from the American Burn Association shows. In an arc flash event, FR clothing provides helps to mitigate the extent of injury overall. In a flash fire, it also provides needed escape time.
Two Primary Hazards
Most FR clothing has been designed to protect workers from two specific types of hazards: flash fire and electric arc flash. A flash fire is a rapidly spreading fire caused by igniting an atmosphere derived from hydrocarbon vapors of an ignitable liquid or finely divided combustible particles (e.g., coal dust or grain) in a concentration exceeding the chemical's lower explosive limit. Temperatures can reach 1,000 degrees F to 1,900 degrees F.
An electric arc flash is the passage of substantial electrical current through ionized air, created by an electric fault. Typically lasting less then one second, an arc flash explosion generates extremely high radiant heat and releases acoustical energy, a pressure wave, and molten debris. Temperatures can reach 35,000 degrees F.
Flash fire is a primary hazard in industries that create a combustible material as a product or byproduct, such as petrochemicals or metallurgy. Arc flash is an obvious concern at electrical utilities; however, any work environment with qualifying electrical hazards needs to guard against arc flash injury with the proper FR garments. Exposed electrical equipment at 50 volts and above is the threshold that requires the use of NFPA 70E's electrical safety practices. Most manufacturers have some employees whose work falls under this description.
For us in the FR industry, the case for flame-resistant clothing is straightforward when regulations are applicable and specific. But it is important to make the case to understand the total benefits of proper FR use:
- Safety and health of employees
- Reinforcement of safety culture
- Reduced cost of injuries, lost time, and accident claims
- Avoidance of OSHA fines
When workers feel their company is taking an active role in their physical well-being, it can boost awareness of and allegiance to a corporate safety culture, a plus for individuals and your company alike.
Which OSHA Regulations Apply?
The following OSHA mandates govern the use of FR clothing:
- General Duty Clause. Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupation Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires that every working man and women must be provided with a safe and healthful workplace. It specifically states, "each employer shall furnish to each of his employees 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 1910.132 "Personal Protective Equipment" requires employers to assess the workplace for hazards and, if present, select and have each affected employee use the appropriate PPE.
- OSHA 1910.269 "Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution" applies to those operating and maintaining electric power generation, control, transmission, and distribution lines and equipment. It requires employers to ensure employees exposed to flames or electric arcs do not wear clothing that when exposed to these hazards could increase the extent of injury.
- OSHA 1910.335 "Electrical Safety Related Work Practices" requires that employees working in areas where there are potential electrical hazards are provided with and use electrical protective equipment.
Which National Consensus Standards Apply?
- NFPA 2112 "Standard on Flame-Resistant Garments for Protection of Industrial Personnel Against Flash Fire" specifies the minimum performance requirements and test methods for flame-resistant fabrics and components and the design and certification requirements for garments for use in areas at risk from flash fires.
- NFPA 70E "Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace" addresses those electrical safety requirements for employee workplaces that are necessary for the practical safeguarding of employees during activities such as the installation, operation, maintenance, and demolition of electrical conductors and equipment and raceways. It does not cover workplaces in ships, underground mines, railways, and communication and electric utility-controlled installations.
- NESC "National Electrical Safety Code" covers the supply and communication lines, equipment, and associated work practices employed by a public or private electric supply, communications, railway, or similar utility in the exercise of its function as a utility.
How to Comply
It is not enough to know what you have to do to meet safety standards. You have to know how. This is where consensus standards play an important role. While OSHA regulations focus on the "what," industry best practices can provide companies the methodology for the "how" to address safety issues.
For example, with electric arc flash hazards, you must perform a Flash Hazard Analysis of your facility. This is a difficult and often time-consuming job. It can be accomplished in several ways, including the following:
1. Have an inside electrical resource perform the analysis using NFPA 70E formulas. This includes a comprehensive evaluation of each electrical task likely to be performed. There is software available to assist, but you must have the data for each task to input.
2. A second alternative is to match each of the electrical tasks to one in the task tables in NFPA 70E. Again you must be knowledgeable enough to determine where your tasks match the tables.
3. A third alternative is to hire an outside expert to perform the analysis for you. This could be the easiest and maybe the most comprehensive, but it is probably the most expensive.
The process of correlating hazards to appropriate FR clothing often goes as follows:
1. Identify hazard type -- either flash fire or electric arc flash. This review not only will determine the presence of potential hazards, but also will guide your ultimate choice in FR clothing regarding materials, hazard ratings, and product types.
2. Review the applicable standard for your hazard. There may be new standards applicable to your industry or the hazard present. Double check these.
3. Determine the level of protection needed. FR garments are rated based on the protection they provide, typically measured in calories (heat energy) applied per square centimeter of surface area. Using garments of insufficient ratings has understandably negative consequences. In turn, using garments rated higher than your hazards dictate can subject workers to unnecessary discomfort and impose unnecessary costs on your company.
4. Research the various FR garment offerings available to meet your needs. There are many different types of FR fabrics providing the foundation for finished garments. Garments themselves come in a multitude of cuts, colors, and configurations. Comfort, durability, price, and service support should all be considered. The least expensive probably will not provide the best overall value. Attributes such as wear life, FR durability, exceeding minimum requirements, and service are all part of the total value of a garment. Most often, you get what you pay for.
5. Evaluate the various garments through wear trials, peer references, safety committees, manufacturers' presentations, etc. Fabric manufacturers, garment manufacturers, uniform supply companies, and others in the FR supply chain have plenty of data to help you make the best choice. Public and private safety organizations are also excellent sources of background information. But a comprehensive wear trial not only can get a true picture of on-the-job performance; it also can get employee feedback and buy-in.
6. Install an FR garment program in which the required protective clothing is made available for each affected employee. This can be either directly purchased by the employer and provided to the employees or rented from an industrial laundering company and coordinated by it.
7. Train employees on safe work practices and proper use of the FR garments. This gets back to safety for safety's sake and a stronger safety culture. The garment doesn't do much good if it is not worn or maintained properly.
FR Equals Safety
If you're new to FR, don't worry. There is a wealth of information sources and product choices to help you make the right decision for your company. There is a wide range of choices when it comes to price, quality, performance, and overall value. The least-expensive garment that meets the minimum requirements of the standard may not be the best value in the long run.
If you have an FR program already in place, make sure to review the latest regulations and consensus standards to ensure compliance. A combination of the right garment and the right usage for the right hazard means a protected and productive workforce. In the end, FR equals safety.
01, 2011 Mark SanerMay. “Why FR Clothing?” Occupational Health & Safety, ohsonline.com/Articles/2011/05/01/Why-FR-Clothing.aspx.