Article Archive
Manufacturers work to overcome PPE's uncomfortable image
Volume 23, No. 1

?"So many people have a bad misconception about protective apparel because they think about the garments and fabrics of yesteryear that were very coarse," James Barns, national sales manager with Saf-Tech Inc., said. "They're not comfortable. They don't breathe well. They are hot in the summertime. They are cold in the wintertime."

Each working day, industrial employees put on their plant-regulated attire. For those working in hazardous situations where fire and arc flash can occur, special garments designed to protect the employee are worn. Manufacturers are working not only to make these garments more comfortable but more effective as protection in an emergency.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) companies' apparel must maintain integrity through washings, offer competitive pricing and adhere to industry expectations. Companies using special fibers follow industry standards from NFPA when creating or blending the fibers and fabrics to design garments that meet a variety of industry PPE needs. Barns said that industrial workers have faced dangers for many years, but PPE programs have been established for specific hazards like flash fires and hazardous materials.

"Where we are now is we've addressed different applications in different industries and what their requirements are," Barns said. "NFPA 70E is the standard for electrical safety requirements for employees in a variety of work places. There are different applications but all need protective apparel to prevent or reduce burn injury. As a result, we have restructured our company to meet the growing diversity of demand in the work place. This means new products, new literature, new marketing and new publicity."

For instance, designing a garment for someone working in arc flash conditions requires attention to following details of safety guidelines. Barns said, "If you are going to manufacture a flame resistant (FR) garment, it needs to be constructed to meet industry specification standards, such as ASTM F1506. Such requirements include sewing the garment with FR thread, as well as FR zippers and tape, and properly identifying and labeling the garment. This ensures the garment will withstand the hazards of arc and flash fire dangers. Basically it's a guideline that if followed will give the wearer the best possible chance of survival."

For NFPA 70E, fabrics are tested by exposing the fabric to an electric arc and measuring its ability to protect a worker from extremely high temperatures contained in the arc, said Denis Kelly, president and CEO of Ashburn Hill Corp. (AHC), a PPE products company.

NFPA 2112 is a different set of requirements. Fabrics must pass tests such as the vertical burn test, thermal shrinkage test and the ThermoMan test, which gauges a fabric's ability to protect a worker in a simulated flash fire. In the ThermoMan? test, a mannequin with over 100 sensors is exposed to 2,350 degrees F for three seconds to determine the percentage of burns. The mannequin passes the test if it receives less than fifty percent second and third degree burns. For example, AHC's outerwear including Duragard?, Nugard CR? and NugardA? fabrics? records less than 16% overall second and third degree burns in the Pyro Man test, Kelly said.

Saf-Tech Inc., a flame resistant apparel manufacturer, uses special fabrics to create apparel that meets or exceeds the demands of the industry. The primary fabrics they use include Nomex? and the Westex line of FR cotton and cotton blend fabrics.

"Nomex? is a fabric that tends to be less comfortable because of its fire blend. Because it is a manmade aramid, by design it does not have some of the characteristics that cotton offers, such as natural wicking ability that offers insulation in wintertime and breathability in the summertime," Barns said.

FR cotton apparel products come in 100% cotton and in cotton blends, which are traditionally 88% cotton and 12% nylon, Barns said.

"They utilize the high-tenacity nylon on the warp, or the outer shell of the fabric, to give it more durability and a longer wear life. When they did that, they also realized it has a higher ATPV (arc thermal performance value) as well as flash fire protection," he said.

For industrial flash fire protection, AHC offers Duragard. "There are hundreds of thousands of people that go to work every day in PPE. Many of them do not like the feel and comfort of their current PPE garments," Kelly said. "Our products are soft, supple and feel as though you are putting on a very comfortable jacket or pant." AHC's products use the Carbtex Thermal Management System to keep a worker warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather in lightweight, breathable fabrics developed by Dr. Frank McCullough of Angleton, Texas.

Patrick Hlavaty, an executive with AHC and a member of the El Campo Volunteer Fire Department, said, "In today's fire world, we are concentrating heavily on the health of the firefighter. It's called the Heart Healthy Program. A firefighter simply has less fatigue wearing AHC's Lightweight Bunker Gear as compared with the traditional heavy structural firefighter clothing. You stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter at a fraction of the cost."

As a lightweight, waterproof, cut-resistant flash fire protection fabric, Nugard CR? is also suitable for rescue situations, Hlavaty said. Plus, it is NFPA (1977) Wildlands certified, so many departments can obtain state and federal grants to purchase the garments.

Protecting PPE apparel is key to product quality longevity. Although industry tends to prefer other fabrics over FR cotton, Barns explains that proper care is the key ingredient to making apparel last like the designer intended.

"There have been misconceptions in the past that FR cottons aren't good like Nomex? because they don't last for the wash out, which couldn't be further from the truth," Barns said. "The fabrics are inherently flame resistant and guaranteed for the life of the product. As long as the laundering instructions have been followed and the care instructions have been followed as it relates to the manufacturer's request or stipulations, then those garments will be flame resistant until they are falling apart and in rags."

There are specific laundry and care instruction for FR fabrics, most of which are prepared by the manufacturer of the fabric. Other specifications are outlined by third party organizations such as the NFPA 2113 standard. Some of these specifications highlight what can and cannot be used to wash an FR fabric. Nearly all FR fabric manufacturers stipulate you cannot wash FR fabrics with additives such as bleach, chlorine, fabric softener or even Deet, as found in insect repellent. If unknowingly added, this would most certainly compromise the FR integrity of the fabrics, Barns said.

While proper laundering can protect the life of FR clothing, some non-FR fibers simply scream "flammable hazard." Polyester, acetate and non-FR nylons have a melting component that can impose further injury in flammable situations. Unless otherwise proven through industry standard testing, there's a risk of extending the wearer's burn injury, Barns said.

Though garments are designed to meet standards and the needs of the user, they also meet the wants. Barns said, "A lot of times, they don't want the cookie cutter outfits. They want to have jeans. They want to have cargo pants. They want bomber jackets. We offer all those things to achieve their targeted image. We strive to deliver what they want. It doesn't necessarily have to be navy blue or royal coveralls. We've designed a product offering that really fits diverse needs in the protective apparel industry."

The requirements that the companies set for their employees are generally up to the safety manager within a specific plant, Barns said. Safety managers choose the colors, weights and tag identifiers for the operators and workers within the company. Such decisions are based on exposure to hazards and company preferences.

The companies that produce the clothing that employees wear to work strive to create products that provide protection and comfort. Fibers, fabrics and garments for industrial workers and emergency responders continue to progress with the demands of industry and national standards.

Electric utility and maintenance companies have potential standard alterations on the horizon. They would have a responsibility to assess the hazard and provide clothing or clothing sensors commensurate with the hazard, Barns said. These companies would be expected to provide sufficient protection based on the hazard. Knowing the potential implementation of these standards, apparel manufacturers have time to investigate and prepare for any changes that might take place.

Determining which type of PPE garments best serve a brigade, industrial emergency responders need to evaluate the cost, comfort and protection that meet their needs. What may be the right garment decision for one company may not work for another because of varying work conditions including materials, duties, budget or labor force. Doing a little homework before making garment purchases ensures that companies get the best product for their demands.


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