Flame-resistant (FR) clothing is a must for any occupations that put workers at risk of burns from hydrocarbon flash fires and electric arcs. One of the top markets for FR apparel is the oil and gas sector, in which sudden, unexpected flashes and fires are just one of the many safety hazards.
Why oil and gas? “They have a greater hazard dealing with highly flammable materials,” explains Andrew Wirts, sales and marketing director with NASCO, a rainwear manufacturer based in Washington, Indiana. “Their work methods, their processes, their general environment has more conditions that are conducive to creating a fire event.”
Because hydrocarbon fires are so frequent and severe in this sector, FR clothing is essential for employees. “They can engineer the hazard to its minimal state, but they can’t completely remove it,” Wirts says about oil and gas work environments, “and FR apparel becomes then another barrier to reducing the amount of burn injury that the worker would encounter in that event.”
“There are a number of injuries and fatalities every year in this sector,” says Dennis L. Mater, thermal-apparel-sales technical leader for North America with DuPont Protection Technologies in Richmond, Virginia. “Flame-resistant clothing can significantly reduce both the extent and severity of burn injuries to the body. Burn injuries can result in some very painful and lengthy recoveries, can be life-altering, can result in fatalities.”
Wirts notes that a worker’s likelihood of surviving a burn depends on the worker’s age and on the percentage of his or her body that is affected. For example, when 35 per cent of the body is burned, “if you’re in that 18-to-25 age group, you’re going to have a pretty good likelihood of surviving that,” he says. “But if you’re in the 50-to-55 age group, not so much, and what you’re trying to do is take that 35 per cent burn injury and reduce it to something significantly less.”
Understanding the risks
FR apparel comes in many different forms, depending on the job’s needs – from shirts, jackets and pants to full-body coveralls, hoods with face shields and outerwear for the weather. But before deciding what kinds of FR clothing to buy, Mater stresses, an employer must conduct a comprehensive hazard-risk assessment of the worksite.
“If you’re choosing or implementing a PPE program without performing a completely comprehensive hazard-risk assessment, you could be leaving workers under-protected – or not protected at all – and vulnerable to greater injuries,” Mater cautions. “It’s important to understand the extent of possible exposure a worker may have to an unexpected fire event.”
For oil and gas workers, Mater recommends inherent flame-resistant products with strong overall thermal protective performance, long-term durability and high comfort. “Inherent means that the flame-resistant properties are not added by post-treatment,” he explains. “Comfort certainly is needed in hot environments where heat stress can be problematic.”
Wirts adds that as with all personal protective equipment, FR clothing must meet the compliance standards of the employer’s country or area. “Those standards are intended to elevate the performance of FR materials, so that the burn injury is minimized for the worker,” he notes. In Canada, FR apparel that protects against flash fires is subject to CGSB-155.20, regulated by the Canadian General Standards Board; otherwise, garments should meet the American standards ASTM F2733 for rainwear and NFPA 70E for protection against electrical fires.
Mater cites Nomex®-branded products as ones that provide both superior protection and long-term durability – the latter a factor of particular importance in the oil and gas sector these days. “The industry has become increasingly focused on costs and reducing expenses,” due to sharply reduced oil prices, he points out. “Durability will lead to longer life cycle and lower the cost of ownership, which is very important at this time in the oil and gas industry.”
Durability includes such factors as resistance to abrasion, ease of cleaning and longevity of flame-resistant fabric, Mater says – and it’s often worth a higher initial investment. “The cheapest choice initially may turn out to be more expensive in the long term.”
Because of the sector’s current need to tighten its belt, employers need to maintain their FR garments carefully to help them last longer – and thereby save on replacement costs.
“When a garment gets contaminated with hydrocarbons that are flammable, it’s very counterproductive to the FR characteristics,” says Wirts, adding that a typical work environment in the oil and gas sector is “a very dirty application.” So it’s important to launder FR garments properly, in a way that removes hydrocarbons without diminishing the fabric’s FR effectiveness. “There are commercial laundry programs that do that,” he adds.
“There are home laundry programs that companies use,” Wirts says. “I would say that the home laundry programs are less effective than the onsite or commercial, but that is a key, because you definitely want to be able to remove those hydrocarbons and not sacrifice the longevity of the garment. And I can tell you that there is a significant amount of work being done to develop a technology that will accomplish that.”
Mater notes that employers should inspect workers’ FR apparel on a regular basis, to ensure that it’s still usable. “Worn or thin areas in a garment will not offer the same level of thermal protection in a fire. Cuts or holes in the garments will also reduce its effectiveness to protect the wearer in the event of a fire. So garments with thin spots, cut or holes should be repaired with like, flame-resistant materials only or should be replaced.”
It’s not a good idea to wash FR clothing with non-FR clothing, Mater adds, and washing FR-treated cotton fabrics and garments in hard water can build up residual minerals that can diminish FR properties. Washing FR-treated cotton fabrics and garments with chlorine bleach can also be counter-effective. “The garment manufacturer’s laundering procedure should be followed, to ensure the level of protection expected is delivered.”
In an industry that’s currently reviewing and scrutinizing its expenses carefully, Mater says, “Extending the life of these garments is important, as well as choosing garments that have a long product life cycle.”