Flame-resistant clothing is an important piece of protective gear for many workplaces. Before purchasing and using it, however, there is a lot you should know about FR clothing. This article will cover the important points.

Flame-Resistant Is Not Fire Proof

When I open the pages of the National Safety Council's Accident Prevention Manual: Engineering and Technology (13th edition) and look up the definition of "flame resistant," the textbook directs me to another term: "Flame proof," defined as "a material incapable of burning."

The manual specifies that the term "fire proof" is misleading, "as no material is immune to the effects of fire possessing sufficient intensity and duration."

And this is the first thing every safety professional and worker needs to know about FR clothing. It is flame resistant, not fire proof. FR clothing is made from materials that are either inherently flame-resistant or chemically treated so they have flame-resistant properties, but all of them are subject to limitations and will only keep a user safe who are not exposed to conditions that exceed those limitations.

Know the Legislation

A set of regulations, acts, standards, and codes govern the use of flame-resistant clothing. You need to be familiar with the ones that apply to your workplace and jurisdiction and to ensure that your equipment and practices.

The laws that might apply to North American workplaces include:

This list is not complete and should be treated only as a suggested starting point. You will also need to look into state, provincial, or territorial laws. Keep in mind, as well, that other acts and regulations refer to FR clothing, such as those governing high-visibility safety apparel. Your selection and use of FR clothing also falls under the general duty clauses included in most safety legislation (for related reading, see Daylight vs. Low Light Visibility: The Hi-Vis Apparel Options You Need).

Consult Partners, Clients, and Manufacturers

If you work for a company as a contractor or subcontractor, that company is likely to have their own policies dictating exactly what safety measures you need to follow while on their site or working for them. This, of course, includes PPE, protective clothing, and FR clothing. But the good thing about this situation is that putting the cost of the required FR into the bid is generally acceptable.

You should also reach out to your contacts at the manufacturer or supplier. They're often your best source of information about FR and a great resource when setting up or updating your FR systems or program. If you can, it's a good idea to get advice from suppliers or manufacturers who serve other clients in your industry, so they'll already have a good sense of the expectations, best practices, and specific regulations that are most relevant for a company like yours.

Understand the Hazard Risk Categories (HRC) for FR Clothing

Hazard Risk Categories are an important consideration when matching the FR clothing to the task the user will be performing.

This chart summarizes what you need to know.



Hazard Risk Category

Common FR Clothing at This Level
Minimum Arc Thermal Protective Value (ATPV)
HRC 1
FR shirt and FR pants; FR coveralls; Single base layer of FR protection
4
HRC 2
FR undergarments (undershirt, underwear), FR shirt, and FR pants; FR under garments, FR coveralls; two or more layers of FR protection
8
HRC 3
FR undergarments (undershirt, underwear), FR shirt, FR jacket, FR pants, and FR coveralls; two or more layers of FR protection
25
HRC 4
FR under garments (undershirt, underwear), FR shirt, FR jacket/coat, FR pants, and FR coveralls; FR undergarments (undershirt, underwear), FR shirt, FR pants, multi-layer flash suit; three or more layers of FR protection;
49


Note that layering generally provides more protection than the sum total of the ATPV values of the individual garments.

Know How to Properly Care for and Maintain Your FR Garments

FR clothing is an expensive investment, but the cost of replacing garments can be kept manageable with proper care and maintenance.

FR clothing that has been chemically treated requires special attention when it comes to washing, drying, and storing.

If you decide to go with a treated product, you'll need to train and educate the worker who will use it and the employee who will be responsible for inspecting, repairing, and looking after the clothing when it is not in use. Hanging a dirty pair of FR coveralls in a locker for two months between uses creates issues (other than the obvious personal hygiene ones) and can compromise the effectiveness of the clothing. And improper washing can not only affect the longevity of the clothing but could also compromise its flame-resistant properties.

For detailed instructions on caring for and washing your FR clothing, consult the manufacturer.

Workers Are Often Wrong About Their Level of Protection

It's important to teach those who use FR clothing about its limitations. Workers who are never taught this explicitly (or who are never reminded of this) often do their work believing their FR clothing will offer them more protection than it does. This can lead to injuries that could have been easily avoided if the worker simply knew the real extent to which they were protected from flame, fire, and heat.

Summary

When it comes to FR clothing, you need to know:

  • The law
  • The hazards and risks of the work you're doing or going to do
  • How to match FR clothing to the work
  • What you need to teach the users about their FR clothing (its use, its limitations)
  • Care, maintenance, repair, storage
  • How to manage your FR clothing safety system – policy, procedure, purchase, use, inspection, and disposal of the clothing

But this isn't the end of the line. There is far more information on the subject than anyone can reasonably be expected to know. Always consult the users and the manufacturers when making your purchase, updating your FR gear, or need assurance that you're doing everything you can to keep your workers safe.

(For those who want a picture of the FR clothing world beyond North America, there is an ISO standard for FR clothing you can consult.)