Fire resistant clothing may appear simple at first, but once you dig into the various types, weights, applications, risks, benefits and costs you can easily find yourself overwhelmed.
Flame-resistant clothing — often abbreviated as FR clothing — is clothing resistant to ignition and prevents the spread of flame. It is there to protect against serious burns and provide precious seconds of time to escape dangerous situations. These types of garments are required by law for anyone working in environments that present a risk of injury from extreme heat, fire, and electric arcs. Flame-resistant clothing is the difference between life and death. They do not easily catch fire, and even if they do, they are designed to contain the spread of the fire and extinguish itself.
Why is fire resistant clothing so important?
Let’s pretend you find yourself in a room full of fire, there are flames all around you and your shirt has caught ablaze. Equipped with an fr shirt the flame would spread slowly, charring instead of burning and may even extinguish itself. Your shirt would be an afterthought, and your focus can be on escaping this fiery hell.
Alternatively, if you are wearing a flammable shirt like, non-treated silk, polyester, or thin cotton; your shirt may ignite and engulf your body in flames in mere seconds. You would receive immediate 3-degree burns and may even be so overwhelmed by the pain and smoke that you cannot escape this fictional disaster area.
Scenarios like this is why in 2010, OSHA instituted a set of regulations for requiring FR clothing in any industry where electric arc, flash fires, and extreme heat are present.
Additionally, OSHA prohibited any employee working in these conditions from wearing anything that could increase the risk/extent of injury.
Who needs to wear FR Clothing?
Anyone working in an environment where there is a real risk of extreme heat, fire, or electrical injuries needs to wear FR clothing.
Generally, there are three broad categories of hazards which fire resistant clothing is made for:
- Electric arc: Individuals who are typically exposed to electric arc include electricians, as well as certain utility workers and others.
- Flash fire: This category of hazards include pharmaceutical and chemical workers, as well as those who work in refineries and more.
- Combustible dust: Workers in food processing plants, paper and pulp industry, etc.
Flame Resistant vs. Fire Resistant vs. Fire Retardant
In the wonderful world of personal protective equipment, there is a lot of jargon and lingo that can easily confuse and overwhelm. Fire resistant clothing is no exception, there are three common terms used when speaking of fire resistance, two of them are interchangeable and the other is an important distinction.
- Fire Resistant: Fire resistant clothing is made from inherently non flammable fabrics., meaning that its FR properties are at a molecular level and the level of protection does not diminish over time. These fires may catch fire, but will either burn extremely slowly or even extinguish itself.
- Flame resistant: This term means the same as fire resistant. If you hear this term used in place of fire resistant, don’t be confused. They mean exactly the same thing, and are interchangeable.
- Fire retardant: Fire-retardant fabrics are treated to provide some of the same properties flame-resistant fabrics inherently have. Fire retardant fabrics are typically cheaper, and lose its effectiveness due to wear, wash, and lifetime.
Inherent vs treated?
Previously we mentioned the difference between fire resistant and fire retardant was whether the fabric is inherently resistant or treated to be. So what exactly is the difference between the two?
Well, FR treated garments tend to be less expensive, but the level of protection begins to diminish with time. Alternatively, inherent fire resistant clothing is a permanent safety solution because its FR properties are at a molecular level. The protection doesn’t wash or wear out, the garment will always be FR as long as its cared for properly.
Inherent Fire Resistant Fabrics
- Higher initial cost, but cheaper long term
- Fire resistant for life
- FR properties are at a molecular level
- Level of protection does not diminish over time
- The garment will always be FR, as long as its well maintained
- A stable level of protection that can be relied on
- The cheaper inherent fabrics tend to be stiff, but can be blended to improve comfort and flexibility.
Inherent FR fabrics are resistant for life. These fabrics have molecular properties that slow the spread of flame and can even extinguish it. It’s properties never diminish, wash, or wear out. A inherent FR garment will always be flame-resistant as long as it is properly cared for. These garments tend to be more expensive than treated fabrics but are permanent solutions and wind up saving companies thousands of dollars each year.
Treated Fire Resistant Fabrics
- A chemical application process which makes the fabric flame resistant
- May be more comfortable depending on what kind of fabric is treated
- The FR properties begin to diminish over time
- Wear, abrasion, UV exposure, and laundering will shorten the useful wear life of a treated FR fabric.
- Create significant environmental concern
- Cheaper initial cost, but has replaced more often and winds up costing more
The problem with fabrics that are treated to be fire resistance is that it’s not a natural process. This is a chemical process and a temporary solution to flame protection. Unlike inherent fabrics, these fabrics protective abilities tend to diminish over time due to wear, abrasion, UV exposure and wash.
A treated FR fabric may meet numerous safety standards and offer a low body burn percentage when brand new, but over time these garments lose their effectiveness. Treated fr garments need to be replaced more often and wind up costing more in the long run. In short, sometimes you get what you pay for and that couldn’t be more true in fire resistant clothing.
Flammable materials (from most to least)
- Silk, Cotton and linen have a high burning rate but can be treated to reduce its flammability.
- Acetate and triacetate are as flammable or slightly less flammable than cotton. These materials can also be treated to reduce flammability.
- Nylon, polyester and acrylic tend to ignite slowly but once ignited, the fabric begins to melt and dripping occurs. Needless to day, hot dripping polyester does not feel good on the skin and can cause major injury.
- Wool is fairly flame-retardant. If ignited, it usually has a low burning rate and may self-extinguish.
- Glass fibers and modacrylic are almost flame-resistant. These synthetic fibers are designed and manufactured to possess flame-retardant properties. These materials tend to be stiff and rigid but can be combined with other materials improve comfort and flexibility.
Choosing the right garment
When choosing which fire resistant garments are right for you there are a number of things to consider. Most importantly, your decision should be based on your own risk assessment. Where are your employees going to be? What hazards will be present? Are you looking for a long term solution or a quick fix?
Fire Resistance Checklist
- Is the garment/fabric you choose compliant/certified with all of the appreciate standards and OSHA regulations?
- Is the style, weight and design of the FR garment ideal to suit your environment and the needs of your employees?
- Are you looking to lower your initial cost or save money in the long term? How important is a stable level of protection to you and your employees?
With so many weights, styles, fabrics and opinions it can be difficult finding the right one for your organization. It is important to remember that some FR is better than none at all. Be sure to choose one that will make your feel confident in terms of protection, comfort and durability. Stick to the facts, do your research and keep your employees safe.