Many businesses across industries—including but certainly not limited to oil & gas, agriculture, manufacturing, and utilities—pose a risk of fire safety hazards. Depending on the exact nature of the fire hazards, workers could suffer from minor to severe burns, blindness, broken bones, and death. Fire safety training is about more than keeping your Class A fire extinguisher handy (although please do that!). Making sure your employees are trained on fire safety hazards is crucial not only for injury prevention and life safety, but also for OSHA compliance. If your workers are exposed to explosive gas or particles, electrical hazards, sparks or flames, art of the safety program needs to include wearing appropriate flame-resistant (FR) or arc flash rated clothing.
Flame-resistant (FR) clothing is thankfully more available and common now, and industry safety regulations and voluntary performance standards are evolving to ensure that workers stay safe. PK Safety can help you out not only with a range of FR clothing but also with the information that can help you make the right safety decisions for your company. Make sure that you review the latest OSHA and NFPA regulations and standards to ensure that you’re using the right garments correctly and for the right hazards. Here are the basics of what you need to know.
FR clothing is usually designed to protect workers from two different types of hazards.
Flash fires are the rapidly spreading fires that happen when vapors or particles are ignited and explode. This can happen in environments with coal dust, grain dust, or ignitable liquids, but all industries that create combustible materials as a product or byproduct of their activities should take caution. The temperatures can reach 1,000 to 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Electric arc flashes happen when electrical currents pass through ionized air created by an electric fault. They happen in less than one second but create heat greater than the surface of the sun, hot gases, pressure waves, and molten debris. Workplaces that deal with electrical hazards need to be aware of arc flash injuries, but they’re a particular concern at electrical utilities.
Most severe burn injuries and fatalities happen when non-FR (or arc flash) clothing is worn in an accident and continues to burn once ignited. Everyday, thousands of people in the U.S. are admitted to burn centers for severe arc flash burns. Even with safety regulations and standards, accidents can happen, but having the proper equipment increases a worker’s chances of surviving an accident.
Identifying the hazard types that your industry faces is the first step toward ensuring that your workers are properly equipped and that you’re following the appropriate standards. Although getting caught in a workplace fire can cause injuries even when you’re wearing FR clothing, wearing protection is better than wearing none. FR clothing is designed to keep the predicted body burn area under 50%, which increases survival rates, mitigates the overall injury, and gives workers valuable escape time in the event of a flash fire that can’t be stopped with a Class A fire extinguisher alone.
FR clothing protects its wearer through the ways that it interacts with heat and fire. These materials are resistant to ignition and, if they do ignite, are quick to self-extinguish. Garments made from FR materials won’t melt onto skin and cause further injuries, provide thermal insulation to provide protection and comfort from heat, and they resist being broken or torn to expose skin to hazards.
Some standards provide guidance for employers working in industries that pose a risk of fire hazards. NFPA 2112 specifies the minimum requirements for FR clothing; OSHA 1910.269 prohibits workers from wearing clothing that increases the chances of injury and lists prohibited synthetic materials; OSHA 1901.132 lays out the requirements for personal protective equipment for employees who are exposed to workplace hazards; and the general duty clause requires employers to do what they can to prevent death or serious injury.
Garments compliant to HRC (Hazard Risk Category) 2, as defined by NFPA 70E, 2012 edition, have an arc rating that is greater than or equal to 8 cal/cm², but is less than 25 cal/cm². HRC 2 may also be called Level 2. The HRC level will be marked on the label of certified FR clothing, it most commonly ranges from 2 to 4 for general FR workwear.
Make sure that you’re familiar with all of the applicable standards and ensure that you provide standard compliant FR clothing in your workplace.
The weight, texture, weave, and color of FR clothing matters when it comes to how much heat can be resisted. What makes FR clothing fire-resistant, though, are the flame-resistant fibers. In the FR clothing business, the terms “inherent” and “treated” get used when referring to FR materials. Both are marketing terms, and neither type is necessarily better than the other, as fibers usually need to be treated through engineering and chemistry regardless of their origin. Some of the most popular FR fabrics are even a blend of the two fiber types.
Inherent fibers are usually synthetic materials that begin as petrochemicals—naturally occurring flammable substances. Engineering and chemistry are required to turn the materials into fibers. One well-known material that is more commonly being used in FR and heat-resistant safety clothing, and that also has cut-resistant qualities is Kevlar. This is a fantastic material, especially for gloves and sleeves for workers exposed to heat and sharp objects on a daily basis. In marketing, the term often suggests that the FR clothing properties can’t be washed out or otherwise worn down over time, but resistance doesn’t have to be inherent to be effective.
Treated fibers begin as fibers like cotton, and engineering and chemistry are used to give them FR properties. Nature doesn’t provide many FR fibers—outside of asbestos, which isn’t commonly used in safety clothing—but treated fabrics can be as fire resistant as most inherent fabrics for their entire lives.
The important thing about FR clothing is that the engineering that makes FR possible is done correctly and that the FR properties remain through laundering and stress throughout the life of the garment. What matters, more than how the garment is manufactured, is that it’s proven to be an overall good value and rated properly for your industry’s hazards.
FR clothing will see real-life use, hazards, and laundry cycles. Look for FR clothing that’s been through repeated independent laboratory evaluations, years of performance in actual job situations, and ones that companies continue to use until it needs replacing. Unproven fabrics could lose their resistance, prove uncomfortable to wear, or otherwise be unsuited for the job: fire safety isn’t something that you want to leave to unproven marketing claims, so look for tried and true FR clothing as part of your PPE alongside Class A fire extinguishers and other gear your industry requires.
Proper FR use and a robust workplace safety culture means that employees are healthy and safe and costs are reduced. You can avoid OSHA fines as well as compensation for injuries, lost time, and accident claims by complying with electrical and fire safety protocols. Taking an active role in the physical well-being of employees is just plain old good to do, so if your work puts you or your employees in danger of fire and burn injuries, you need protection. FR clothing reduces your risk, the severity of injuries and increases your chances for survival in case of an accident, and should be as much a part of fire prevention and safety as your Class A fire extinguisher. Be prepared for anything with FR clothing tailored to your industry. For more information about FR clothing or electrical fire safety, call us at 800.829.9580 or get in touch online.