OHS Canada Magazine

Understanding the Challenges of Managing an Effective Flame-Resistant-Clothing Program

June 5, 2015
By Mount Vernon FR

Managing an effective company-wide flame-resistant-clothing (FRC) program is a challenging task for Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) professionals – the costs are high, and the risks are great. Direct costs (medical care, recovery and rehabilitation, disability, job retraining) and indirect costs (workers’ compensation, lost productivity, increased medical-insurance premiums) can push the costs of a single serious burn injury without FRC above $2 million, whereas a comparable event with a proper FRC program may cost a company approximately $50,000.

Looking ahead, both the costs and the risks will increase, making the challenges even greater. Consider the following:

  • Nearly 15 per cent of the total fatalities in the U.S. oil and gas industries over the past five years were the result of a work-related fire or explosion.
  • Employment in the oil and gas industries is projected to increase significantly over the next several years, putting an even greater number of workers at risk for injuries or death.

EHS professionals cannot overcome these challenges on their own. Manufacturers of FR fabrics and garments need to work together to help create solutions to the key challenges faced by EHS professionals in order to reduce the number of workplace injuries or deaths and to help them more effectively manage the costs associated with FRC programs.

Work in the industry showed that a deeper understanding of the specific challenges faced by EHS professionals was needed to help focus the FR supply chain – from fabric manufacturers to garment manufacturers to industrial laundry operations – on the development of meaningful solutions. The purpose of this white paper and the research behind it is to ensure that the voice of the customer – the EHS professional and the workers they serve – is heard throughout the industry to improve FRC programs with one goal in mind: to provide a greater number of workers with a greater level of safety.

The Need: Reducing Workplace Fatalities

The oil and gas extraction industries, which include oil and gas extraction, drilling oil and gas wells, and support functions for oil and gas operations, have an annual occupational fatality rate that is more than seven times higher than the rate for all U.S. workers. To put this problem into perspective, a total of 519 fatalities occurred in the U.S. oil and gas industries during the five-year period from 2008 through 2012. Of these fatalities, 77 – or 14.8 per cent – were the result of work-related fires or explosions.

Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) professionals are keenly aware that workers in the oil and gas extraction industries face many on-the-job dangers, including those posed by potentially deadly flash fires and electric arc flash. Increases in employment in these sectors will only serve to put more workers at risk, making it critically important to understand the key challenges in managing an effective flame-resistant clothing (FRC) program for direct employees and contractors. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of oil and gas extraction workers is projected to increase 16 per cent by 2022, and this growth is on top of the 59 per cent increase in production and non-supervisory employment in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sectors that occurred from 2004 to 2014.

One thing is certain – over the next several years, there will be a growing number of oil and gas extraction workers that will face risks. Successfully managing a company-wide FRC program will become more challenging, not to mention more costly for employers.

Voice of the Customer

As the focus on FRC continues to grow, Mount Vernon FR, a leading U.S. manufacturer of flame resistant fabrics, collaborated with the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) to conduct a Voice of the Customer study to gain insights into the challenges faced by EHS professionals. This Voice of the Customer research consisted of two phases:

  • A focus group was held at the ASSE Safety Conference in Orlando. Participants included safety personnel from companies such as Citgo Petroleum Corporation, Chevron North America, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, Motiva Enterprises (Shell Oil) and Enbridge Energy.
  • A follow-up online survey was distributed to ASSE members, with 400 safety, health and environmental professionals in the oil and gas, utilities, mining and construction industries completing the survey. Results of the survey represent nearly 490,000 employees that wear FRC on the job, and the results have a margin of error of 4.9 per cent.

The research was conducted by Quixote Group Research, an independent research firm based in Greensboro, N.C., in conjunction with ASSE.

By gaining and sharing insights from the end users of FRC, Mount Vernon FR and the ASSE will help drive meaningful and relevant developments throughout the supply chain that are focused on the key challenges – finding solutions that matter by keeping workers safer, regardless of industry, environment or gender.

A Detailed Discussion of the Challenges

Although 80 per cent of respondents agree that today’s flame-resistant fabrics are much better than those available in the past, the results of the survey indicate that EHS professionals still face challenges and concerns in managing their FRC program.

One area that appears to have been adequately addressed by fabric and garment manufacturers is the level of protection provided by today’s FRC, with 88.1 per cent of respondents saying the level of protection offered in FRC was either not a problem at all (53.6 per cent) or only a minor problem (34.5 per cent). In addition, 78 per cent of respondents said that they were satisfied with the level of protection provided by today’s FRC.

FR garments that are deemed uncomfortable or too hot can pose challenges for EHS professionals, as employees may be tempted to ignore company standards and practices for FRC. While there should always be a zero-tolerance policy for breaking company rules for FRC, employee compliance ranked 11th out of 12 ideas tested in terms of being a moderate or serious problem. Nearly eight of 10 (76 per cent) EHS respondents said that employee compliance – which was defined as employees wearing their FRC consistently and correctly – is either not a problem at all (35.5 per cent) or that it is only a minor problem (40.5 per cent) for them. This doesn’t let the industry off the hook, however, as continued improvements to the comfort of FR fabrics and FRC should be sought to help maintain or increase compliance levels among employees and contractors.

If compliance was rated near the bottom of the list, then what ideas rose to the top? The following areas appear to be the ones that pose the greatest challenges to EHS professionals:

  1. The need for more durable FRC to help companies better manage program costs and to ensure worker safety;
  2. The challenges posed in the care and maintenance of FRC, especially during industrial laundering;
  3. The selection of FRC suitable for women, such as appropriate styling, sizes, etc.;
  4. The selection of FRC for inclement weather, such as rain gear; and
  5. The selection of FRC for hot weather conditions.

The need for greater durability
Nearly all of the respondents (95.5 per cent) said that they provided FRC to their employees, either exclusively (74.3 per cent) or in combination with a stipend (21.2 per cent). Providing FRC to employees comes at a significant cost, and durability issues can drive up costs through the need to replace FRC sooner than may be needed or budgeted – the higher the FRC replacement rate, the higher the overall costs associated with the FRC program.

In addition to the monetary issues, excessive wear and fabric or garment failures can compromise the protection offered by the garment, leaving workers vulnerable and potentially unsafe. Fabrics and garments that lack durability can undermine the confidence of both employers and workers.

There does appear to be a need gap when it comes to the durability of FRC: 52.2 per cent rated durability as very important to the FRC purchase decision; however, only 10.7 per cent of respondents said that they were extremely satisfied with the amount of durability provided. This gap between importance and satisfaction presents an opportunity for fabric and garment manufacturers.

It needs to be noted that durability cannot be the sole driver when it comes to FRC. Fabric and garment manufacturers may be able to create FRC that could be considered “bullet-proof”, but it has to be something that is comfortable and does not get in the way of getting the job done. Although heavyweight fabrics are typically more durable than lighter weight fabrics, they may not be the right solution for warmer climates and they may not provide an adequate range of motion for certain jobs and tasks.

However, there are options to consider that can help achieve the right balance between durability, flexibility and comfort:

  • Look for fabrics with unique fibre blends that add to both the durability and the comfort of fabrics. New fabrics are being introduced that blend cotton, nylon and Tencel®, which is a cellulosic fibre that is similar to cotton yet stronger. These fabrics feel lighter than their true weight, which adds to the comfort of the garment without sacrificing strength or protection.
  • Look for unique methods to achieve softness without sacrificing protection or durability. Fabric construction or durable softening techniques that do not rely on chemical softeners will produce a product that remains soft and comfortable for the life of the garment.

Challenges posed by the care and maintenance of FRC
More than half (54.5 per cent) of the responding companies said that they used an outside industrial laundry for the care and maintenance of their FRC; however, their satisfaction levels with some aspects of the industrial laundering process were not as high as they should or could have been.

Of those that use an outside laundry service:

  • 40 per cent said that the care and maintenance of FRC was a moderate or serious problem.
  • 29 per cent were dissatisfied with the amount of fading after laundering, compared to 34 per cent that were satisfied.
  • 24 per cent were dissatisfied with the amount of wear and tear caused by laundering, compared to 38 per cent that were satisfied.

Focus-group respondents said that fading caused workers to question the protective properties of the garment – they wondered if the level of protection had faded along with the colour. Minimizing the amount of fading caused by industrial laundering would help provide added confidence in the protection offered by FRC and can lengthen the garment replacement cycle for employers.

In addition to FRC that holds its colour longer, FR fabrics and garments that are better equipped to handle the rigours of industrial laundering are needed to help manage the overall costs of an FRC program. Rips, tears and holes that occur from the laundry process make FRC ineffective and lead to shorter replacement cycles.

The concerns with industrial laundering can be seen in comments from respondents in the focus group:

  • “Holes caused by washing leave the garment ineffective.”
  • “The wear spots on the knees and elbows – we think it’s a laundering issue.”
  • “We have gotten away from industrial laundering and installed some onsite washing and drying. Industrial laundering is nice, but it wears shirts and pants too much.”

The amount of shrinkage after laundering does not appear to be nearly as big an issue as fading and wear and tear. Only 18 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with the amount of shrinkage, compared to 48 per cent that said they were satisfied.

Improving the selection of FRC suitable for women
The following trends would indicate that designing FR fabrics and garments that are suitable for women can no longer be an afterthought:

  • There were approximately 126,000 women employed in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas industries in 2012, which was a 27 per cent increase compared to 2011. Women represented 13.2 per cent of all workers in these segments in 2012.
  • Although total employment in the utilities sector declined in 2012 compared to 2011, the number of female workers increased by 0.7 per cent against a decrease of 5.6 per cent for males. Women represented 23.2 per cent of all workers in the utilities sector in 2012.

Given the share of women in industries that are heavy users of FRC, it is not surprising that respondents in the focus group said that the time was right to place a greater emphasis on FR fabrics and garments that are specifically designed with women in mind.

  • “The variety (of FRC) is better today than it was five years ago. There are more styles, colours, jeans. But there’s still not enough selection for women.”
  • “I’d like to see fitted, more tailored garments, especially for women.”

There are several options that can be considered to improve the appeal and satisfaction of an FRC program among women, including the following:

  • Look for fabric manufacturers that have programs in place that allow you to customize FR fabrics. These manufacturers will work with you to create custom colours and patterns that are more appealing to female employees.
  • Look for FR fabrics that offer “flex”. These fabrics offer several benefits that will make FRC more appealing to women: they improve range of motion, they offer a more flattering fit, and the bilateral flex eliminates sagging and bagging.

The selection of FRC for inclement weather
Respondents in the oil and gas industries were more likely to say that the selection of FRC for inclement weather was a concern – 41.9 per cent in the oil and gas industries rated it a moderate or serious problem, compared to 23.2 per cent of those in the utilities and construction segments.

Respondents in the focus group said that there is a large disparity in the product offering today. Low-end rain gear was viewed as too flimsy, and there were concerns that the construction of these items contains gaps that left workers exposed to risks. However, high-end rain gear can be cost-prohibitive to companies looking to manage their overall FRC budget.

To find high-quality, value-oriented FRC that helps protect against the elements, look for FR fabric manufacturers that can apply a durable water-repellent finish to their FR fabrics. When combined with protection from electric arc and flash fires, these fabrics offer an added level of protection from the elements and are especially helpful for water-intensive industries such as oil and gas extraction.

The selection of FRC for hot weather conditions
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the selection of FRC for hot weather conditions, particularly given the concentration of oil and gas companies in the Southeast and Southwest portions of the U.S. and the concerns about heat exhaustion during the summer months.

Respondents were least satisfied with breathability when it comes to the comfort of a FR garment, followed by moisture management – which is essentially the fabric’s ability to handle the body’s perspiration – and fabric weight. However, creating an ideal FR garment for hot weather conditions requires a very delicate balance between all of these properties as they impact both comfort and protection.

Breathability has become a common catchphrase that most likely combines air permeability, moisture management and absorbency into a single term. Air-permeability measures alone do not provide a good indication of the comfort of a fabric in hot weather as other factors – such as the type of fibres used in the fabric – can greatly influence moisture management and absorbency. While end users may have different interpretations of breathability, it is safe to say that all are looking for the right combination of properties to improve comfort in hot weather conditions.

For moisture management, wicking finishes are typically applied to fabrics that are not inherently absorbent. Fabrics made from hydrophobic fibres, which do not absorb moisture, require the application of a re-wetting agent to impart moisture-management properties. These re-wetting or wicking finishes help hydrophobic fibres move moisture along the surface of the fibre, which can result in the fibre feeling wet against the skin. Wicking finishes have limited durability and can wash out long before the garment is ready for replacement.

Hydrophobic fibres include Nomex, Twaron, Kermel, modacrylics and Kevlar. Hydrophilic fibres, which include cotton, rayon and Tencel®, are naturally absorbent and therefore do not require the application of wicking finishes to the fabric. Fabrics made with these naturally absorbent fibres may not perform as well in standard tests of wicking speed or distance because they are busy absorbing the moisture, not just moving it along the fibre surface the way that hydrophobic fibres do. Hydrophilic fibres do not feel wet against the skin until they become saturated.

Given these variables, finding the right FR fabric for your environmental conditions requires working with fabric manufacturers to find the best combination of fibre blend, fabric construction and weight for your application.

FR Fabric as Part of the Solution

An important part to the solution to these challenges begins with the selection of the right FR fabrics to meet your specific needs. Respondents to the survey did not believe that FR fabrics had become commoditized – in fact, the opposite is true. EHS professionals believe that differentiation does exist from one FR fabric to another, which is evident from their response to the following questions:

  • 77 per cent of respondents disagreed with the following: “All FR fabrics are essentially the same.”
  • 46 per cent disagreed with the following: “FR fabrics at comparable weights offer the same amount of protection.”

When evaluating various FR fabrics, it is important to look beyond price and consider the following criteria:

  • Acceptability – Will your workers want to wear it? Does the garment feel good, does it look good, and does it fit well?
  • Durability – Will the fabric meet or exceed your expectations for the useful life of a garment, given your specific working conditions? How does it withstand the rigours of industrial laundering? Fabrics that fall short will result in a more expensive FRC program based on a more frequent replacement cycle.
  • Functionality – How well will the fabric and garment perform in the work environment? How suitable is it for warmer climates or inclement weather conditions? Does it hinder or distract from the ability to do the job at hand?

The best way to determine the optimum fabric is through a properly executed wear trial. The following “best practices” should be considered in your wear trial:

  • Limit the number of fabrics and/or garment styles to minimize confusion.
  • Do not involve too many employees, but consider using some from different shifts and areas to ensure consistent feedback across the organization.
  • Use standard questions and ranking scales (e.g., five-point Likert scales) to obtain measurable feedback.
  • Allow for the evaluation of fabric and garment construction separately – did they like the fabric but not the garment?
  • Ask for written comments to add context to the data.

The Benefits

The selection of the most appropriate FRC provides many benefits to EHS professionals and their companies, including:

  • A more productive and more satisfied workforce, as their FRC enhances their ability to work safely rather than detracting from it;
  • The ability to better manage the costs of your FRC program, by reducing the need to replace FRC ahead of schedule; and
  • A reduction in injuries and fatalities resulting from flash fires and electric arc flash.

Working in closer partnership with FR fabric manufacturers, garment manufacturers and providers of outside laundry services, EHS professionals can more effectively manage the needs of an increasing workforce and those posed by new safety regulations.

FR fabric manufacturers can be valuable resources in helping EHS professionals meet the identified challenges:

  1. The need for more durable FRC to help companies better manage program costs and to ensure worker safety;
  2. The challenges posed in the care and maintenance of FRC, especially during industrial laundering;
  3. The selection of FRC suitable for women;
  4. The selection of FRC for inclement weather, such as rain gear; and
  5. The selection of FRC for hot weather conditions.

Mount Vernon FR manufactures and sells flame-resistant apparel at its facility in Trion, Georgia.

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