Flame-resistant (FR) clothing is either made of materials that are naturally flame resistant (such as wool or cotton) or that are treated with a flame retardant. These materials, used to make shirts, pants, jackets and coveralls, protect people performing work around potential fire and electrical hazards.
This type of personal protective equipment (PPE) falls under OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.132 (General Protective Equipment) as well as 29 CFR 1910.269 (Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution). Additional standards from the National Fire Protection Agency (such as NFPA 2112 and NFPA 70E) also pertain to flame-resistant clothing.
Employers and safety managers need to understand when this clothing is required in the workplace, but as with other PPE, they also need to make sure workers wear it and wear it properly. If someone rolls up the sleeves of an FR shirt or unbuttons a jacket, he or she could be seriously at risk if a flash fire or an arc flash occurred.
Selecting Flame-Resistant Clothing
When selecting FR clothing for your workplace (that employees will actually wear!) you should keep some key considerations in mind.
First, fabric. Natural fibers such as cotton and wool will not burn right away when faced with fire. Some FR options are made from these materials. Many FR garments are treated with flame-retardant chemicals to enhance their effectiveness, too. Either of these options—natural or treated—can be considered.
The fabrics you should avoid are acetate, nylon, polyester and polypropylene, according to OSHA. These fabrics can actually melt to the skin, resulting in severe burns. Unless garments made from these materials have been specially treated to withstand heat and flame, they should not be worn around these hazards. (Some companies have recently developed FR polyester, though, which offers a unique solution for workers who need FR clothing. More on that later.)
Next, consider other factors that could impact safety. For example, zippers and buttons must be melt-resistant, and the garments shouldn’t be too tight because tighter garments will transfer more heat to the skin during a flash fire than looser clothing.
Don’t forget about employee comfort either. If people are comfortable wearing clothing, they’re more likely to wear it correctly. Look at the weight, thickness and stiffness of fabrics. Stiff fabrics can be uncomfortable and impede movement, while thick fabrics might make workers too warm in hot work environments.
Finally, make sure garments are rated for the hazards present in your workplace. Consult NFPA 2112-2012 and NFPA 70E for information about what types of NFPA ratings are needed in your workplace.
Note: Flame-resistant clothing differs from arc flash-rated (AR) clothing. FR clothing can withstand fire, but not necessarily an arc flash. AR clothing, on the other hand, will also be flame-resistant and has gone through more rigorous testing to ensure it can withstand the extremely high temperature associated with arc flash.
Caring for Flame-Resistant Garments
FR garments are often treated with special chemicals, and those chemicals can wash away over time in the laundry, reducing the effectiveness of the garments. Therefore, it is important to follow manufacturer instructions for laundering.
Make sure workers who wear this clothing understand washing instructions, which in many cases may involve keeping track of how many times an item has been washed. No one should avoid washing a garment to prolong its life, though, as contaminants can negatively impact flame resistance.
Worker Noncompliance Issues
If your company selects FR clothing that is comfortable, workers will be more likely to wear it. That being said, some workers may not wear their gear properly, so it’s important to reinforce best practices for how to wear work apparel. Simply providing FR PPE is not enough; employers are still responsible for making sure it is worn appropriately.
In some cases, employees might wear non-FR clothing underneath their FR gear, and if the top layer had a hole in it or isn’t properly fastened, those workers could still be seriously burned. Consequently, it is best for workers to wear melt-resistant fabrics against their skin, as these fabrics won’t act as ignition sources. These fabrics (such as cotton and wool) will also help reduce heat transfer, which can burn the skin even beneath an FR fabric.
Modern Flame-Resistant Clothing
The FR clothing market offers many options that are more comfortable than this gear has historically been. New materials that are lighter and more flexible than those used in the past are available.
Bulwark FR, an FR clothing company, even offers flame-resistant polyester, which is especially noteworthy since polyester is more breathable than many other fabrics. Most polyester is not safe to wear around flames, but this new fabric can resist heat and make the wearer more comfortable. You can learn more about these garments in our recent podcast about FR clothing.
Once you have identified the best FR clothing options for your workplace and instructed workers in how to wear and wash them, you can go one step further and post signage indicating where and why these garments are needed. Placing signs and labels near fire and arc flash hazards will reinforce the training workers should have already received about these dangers and the corresponding PPE.