Fire resistant clothing is not the place to cut corners.
When sparks are flying, you don’t want to be the one wearing the wrong type of protective clothing.
Though it’s often the last line of defense against flash fires and other such disasters, fire resistant (FR) protective clothing is essential and standard PPE for workers in a number of industries.
It can be tempting to simply purchase the most economical protective gear, but fire resistant PPE isn't the place to cut corners. In this article, we'll go over what you should know and consider before deciding which FR clothing to purchase.
Understanding Fire Resistant PPE
Before we get into what fire resistant clothing is, let’s be clear about what it isn’t. Fire resistant does not mean fire proof. It’s intent is to keep the predicted body burn area under 50 percent, which has been shown to significantly improve survival rates.
FR protective clothing can still ignite, but it handles the ignition differently than regular, everyday fabrics. When normal fabrics ignite, they spread outward from the point of ignition with an increasing rate of flame spread. In general, these fabrics continue to burn even after the ignition source is removed, and they will only stop burning once extinguished or when there is no flammable material left.
FR clothing resists ignition more than these normal fabrics and prevents the outward spread of fire. It offers a handful of important benefits:
- Does not melt onto skin
- Provides thermal insulation from heat
- Resists breaking open and exposing skin
- Reduces burn injury and increases chances of survival
In fact, once a fire resistant garment is removed from the source of ignition, any flame should die out. While burns can still occur at any point of exposure to the ignition source, workers wearing fire resistant clothing have far less chance of their uniform catching fire and burning in a sustained fashion.
That's what FR clothing does, but how does it work? Essentially, it reduces the flammability of materials by either blocking the fire and its effect, or initiating a chemical reaction that stops the fire. The clothing acts as a barrier between the fire and the skin, reducing the energy transfer, and can also self-extinguish to prevent prolonged exposure to the flame or heat source (learn more about Working Safely with High Temperatures).
Common Applications for Fire Resistant Protective Clothing
Workers in a number of different fields benefit from the protection that fire resistant PPE offers. But there are some industries that require it more often than others, including oil and gas, welding, manufacturing, mining, and electrical.
It’s critical for employers to carefully evaluate the tasks that workers are doing to determine whether there is a risk of ignition or burning. Some common causes include:
- Flammable liquids or flammable soils on garment
- Contact with or close proximity to molten metals
- Contact with sparks from flame cutting or welding
- Contact with open flames
- High-energy electrical discharges
- Explosion of volatile liquid or flammable gas vapors
- Ignition of combustible dusts
Choosing the Right Clothing for the Right Application
The costs of selecting the wrong clothing for a work application are enormous. Fires can seriously injure workers, causing second- or even third-degree burns to the body and face. Most of these burns aren’t a result of the original physical hazard, but rather a secondary result of burning clothing.
Luckily, there is a wide variety of fire resistant clothing available to cover just about any scenario you can think of, including FR pants, overalls, vests, lab coats, rainwear, high-vis gear, jackets, welding wear, hoods, masks, and balaclavas.
Here are a few questions to ask when considering what type of FR gear your workers need:
- Is there a possibility of explosion?
- Are workers near radiant heat?
- Are workers near liquids or chemicals?
- Are workers near particulates, like dust or asbestos?
You’ll also want to consider a number of clothing features:
- Wear life
- Comfort and fit
- Material composition
- Ability to wick sweat
- Compliance with appropriate standards and OSHA regulations
- Ability to exceed minimum requirements
(For related reading, see Top 3 Arc Flash Clothing Complaints - And How to Solve Them.)
It’s also important to note that there are two different kinds of fire resistant fabrics: inherent FR and treated FR. Garments made of inherently FR fabrics have fire resistant properties built in at the molecular level and are specifically created to be flame resistant for life. Treated FR garments, on the other hand, undergo a chemical application process that makes them resistant to fire. This means that over time, the FR properties degrade and becomes less protective. Factors that contribute to a shortened life span include wear, abrasion, UV exposure, and laundering.
Just as with other PPE, fire resistant clothing must be taken care of to prolong its life and ensure its proper functioning. Be sure to always follow manufacturer labels for laundering, and inspect garments for holes or excessive wear prior to each use.
Safety Standards to Abide By
OSHA maintains that the use of FR clothing significantly improves the probability of a worker surviving and retaining a high quality of life after a flash fire. For this reason, OSHA and other regulating bodies have laid out specific standards that employers must adhere to when it comes to fire resistant work wear.
At the most general level, OSHA’s general duty clause requires all workers to be provided with a safe and healthful workplace that is free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Employers must also assess the workplace and present each affected employee with the appropriate PPE to manage any noted hazards.
OSHA also has the following rules specific to FR protective clothing:
- 1910.269: Anyone operating and maintaining electric power generation, control, transmission, and distribution lines and equipment who is exposed to flames or electric arcs must not wear clothing that could increase the extent of injury
- 1910.335: Employees working in areas with potential electrical hazards must use electrical protective equipment
- 1910.132: Employers must provide this protective equipment at no cost to workers
Other standards that apply include:
- NFPA 2112, which provides minimum requirements for the design, construction, evaluation, and certification of fire resistant garments for use by industrial workers
- NFPA 2113, which specifies the minimum selection, care, use, and maintenance requirements for the aforementioned protective garments
- NFPA 70E, which addresses electrical safety requirements to safeguard employees during activities like the installation, operation, maintenance, and demolition of electrical conductors and equipment
It’s true: fire resistant protective clothing is generally more expensive than its regular counterpart. But for workers exposed to fire risks on a daily basis, having the right clothing could be a matter of life or death.
For this reason, it’s imperative that employers familiarize themselves with the safety standards and conduct regular audits to determine where workers may be at risk and the appropriate type of fire resistant clothing for each application.
Dupont Tychem 2000 SFR
These coveralls provide an effective barrier against a range of chemicals, as well as secondary flame resistance when worn over primary FR garments. They are resistant to inorganic acids and bases as well as many industrial cleaning chemicals. The coveralls are designed to not ignite during a flash fire, reducing the risk of burn injury as long as appropriate FR apparel is worn beneath them.
Lakeland Zipper Front FR Hoodie
This zipper-front hoodie is warm, comfortable and fire resistant. It meets NFPA 70E, 2112 standards for fire resistance. It's made of heavyweight knit cotton, and includes a hand-warming pocket on the front.
Lakeland FR Button Up Shirt
This work shirt is designed to be both comfortable and protective for everyday wear. It's made of medium-weight FR cotton and includes two handy button-flap pockets. It is NFPA 2112 certified for protection, providing the function and safety every worker needs.
Chicago Protective Apparel Aluminized Para-Aramid Blend Coverall
This aluminized coverall is designed for industrial settings to protect workers against hazards such as high heat or molten metal. It can reflect up to 95% of radiant heat, as well as reduce the flow of ambient heat by as much as 50% compared to non-aluminized materials. It is also designed to shed molten metals. This coverall is a 19 oz. aluminized para-aramid blend. There are no pockets.
National Safety Apparel Three-Piece Aluminized Suit
This three-piece aluminized suit provides high-level protection against radiant heat and molten metal. It is designed for extreme temperatures and therefore provides the ultimate protection against heat, sparks and molten metal splash. These aluminized clothing proximity suits are designed for ambient temperatures of no greater then 600 F, with radiant heat protection up to 2950 F. This suit also includes a fiberglass-shell helmet with gold or clear face shield.
MCR Safety Flame Resistant Contractor Coverall
These FR coveralls are designed for safety and comfort in a variety of work conditions. They are made of 100% cotton that meets the NFPA 2112 standard for flame resistances as well as the NFPA 70E standard for electrical safety. These functional overalls include two chest pockets, two hip pockets and two back pockets. They are durable, designed to last and carry a lifetime FR guarantee.