How to Navigate the FR/AR Clothing Marketplace
Derek Sang, QSSP, Technical Training Manager, Bulwark Protective Apparel
Historically, the regulations and standards have at the very least required that employees who were exposed to short-duration thermal hazards, such as arc flash and flash fire, not wear anything that could melt. This eliminated garments constructed using synthetics, such as polyesters, nylons, rayons and acetates, and defaulted clothing made with 100% cotton. The problem with non-FR cotton is that once exposed to thermal energies beyond its ignition point, it will ignite and continue to burn, resulting in added injury.
Employers choosing FR/AR clothing are required by the regulations to:
- Select, and have each affected employee use, the types of PPE that will protect the affected employee from the hazards identified in the hazard assessment.
- As with hazard assessment, industry consensus standards may be used to guide selection decisions. (NFPA 70E/2112/2113)
Understanding the FR/AR Supplier Landscape
The law requires you (the employer) to outfit employees who are exposed to an arc flash hazard. How do you make sure they’re properly clothed?
In today’s market, premium suppliers are utilizing fabrics and the technologies that have been well-researched, well-tested and market-proven. These fabrics have been tested on the job and have been proven to perform as advertised. They are durable to laundering, normal wear and the work environment. Plus, they are guaranteed in writing for the life of the garment and market-proven across multiple sales cycles. With multiple manufacturers using a variety of fabrics, constructed in a variety of manners and offered through multiple channels, here is a simplified view of the FR/AR manufacturing and selling landscape.
Fabric Manufacturers: These companies are responsible for spinning, weaving or finishing FR/AR fabrics and testing these fabrics to ASTM, OSHA, NFPA, ANSI and/or independent standards.
Garment Manufacturers: These companies cut and sew a wide variety of FR/AR fabrics and also hold certifications on garments. These manufacturers may sell direct or sell through distributors.
Suppliers: Suppliers may manufacture their own garments, or they may distribute garments from other FR/AR manufacturers. Some suppliers sell direct only, through distributors only, or a combination of both.
Industrial Laundries: Most industrial laundries have access to multiple brands of FR/AR apparel, and they rent these brands to a variety of industries. Some national laundries manufacture a line of FR/AR garments with their own brand name.
Distributors: There are hundreds of distributors that have access to the multiple FR/AR brands.
Key Factors to Consider When Evaluating Suppliers
Implementing an FR clothing program will be less daunting when you partner with a supplier who controls the supply chain; evaluates all fabrics; provides resources for guaranteed performance; delivers innovative garment designs; and has technical training and support. A few benefits to look for in a supplier are:
- Do they maintain a viable chain of custody if a worst-case scenario should occur and someone is injured while wearing FR clothing?
- Do they help remove the burden of evaluating fabric performance?
- Do they provide long-term technical support?
- Does the supplier own the manufacturing process or contract it out*?
*If contracted out, what assurances exist that the secondary materials used for garment construction are FR?
- Does the garment manufacturer have a track record of proven performance in the conditions required?
- Does the supplier have a track record of providing garments made from the latest technologies, and can they easily integrate new technologies as they become available?
- Does the supplier adhere to the correct standards for construction to the applicable hazard?
- Does the supplier have a variety of fabrics, garment styles, outerwear and layering options to streamline your procurement process?
- Does the supplier employ technical staff?
Once you have determined your hazard and exposure, the procurement process can be simplified into three decisions.
What fabric best meets the level of protection you need?
- Garment style/comfortability
What garment style is going to be the most comfortable for your employees to wear?
Logistically, what supply channel best suits your company? Is it an industrial laundry, a safety distributor, or another type of supplier?
Once you determine what is best for your employees it’s time to consult with a supplier to help you find garment options based on your assessment.
Additional Considerations for Comfort and Fit
It’s vital that workers are comfortable in their FR clothing. Discomfort leads to an increased risk of non-compliance, resulting in injuries. Since workers may find different materials more comfortable than others, it’s beneficial to let workers try out FR clothing in advance.
Substituting layered systems for thicker and heavier clothing requires additional evaluation. It’s important to understand what layered system meets your specific hazard requirements. That also goes for ancillary products like headgear, gloves, etc. It’s recommended that a worker practices wearing the PPE before working in and around their specific hazard. This helps to ensure that the PPE does not interfere with their task.
Fit: FR/AR clothing should fit comfortably to allow for unrestricted movement. It shouldn’t be too tight or too loose, because it might interfere with their work.
Layers: Multiple layers can and do provide additional protection. It can also be more comfortable than a single layer of thick and heavy clothing. Layering is becoming more important as utilities are tasked with matching the incident energy determined by their hazard assessment to the ATPV of the clothing system. Layered garments have to be tested together in the order they are to be worn; without that information you can only consider the outermost layers ATPV.
As you can see, the FR clothing landscape is complex. There are multiple solutions for every category, such as fabrics, manufacturers, distributors, direct sale, industrial laundry and more. When you partner with the right supplier, you’ll be confident that you and your employees are protected against the worst-case scenario. WMHS
About the Author
Derek Sang has been involved with the flame-resistant clothing industry in a variety of roles from the service, manufacturing and garment sides of the business for over 20 years. He has developed and conducted over 250 educational and informational seminars on the hazards of arc flash/flash fire and flash fire for a variety of companies, associations and organizations, including ASSE, BLR. NSC, VPPPA, NJATC, NECA, CAER. In his current position as a Technical Training Manager, Sang has developed over 40 hours of training curriculum for Bulwark University. These training efforts cover all aspects of FR/AR clothing and are delivered utilizing live class courses, on line training, webinars and seminars. Bulwark University focuses on non-commercial training for individuals and companies on the hazards of Arc Flash and Flash Fire and how to properly design and implement a FR/AR Clothing program. Along with being a recognized Subject Matter Expert (SME), Sang is also a Qualified Safety Sales Professional (QSSP), International Association of Safety, Health, Environmental Professionals.
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