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Comfort = Safety: What IndyCar, NASCAR, and Oil & Gas need to know about FR clothing

Wearing the right FR layers at work not only protects from flash fires, it also can reduce heat stress and improve performance on the job.  Here is what you need to know in this new age of more comfortable performance fabrics. And what really matters when it comes to protecting workers – from oilmen to pit crews – on the job.

Burns due to flame remain the most common – and severe – of thermal injuries, according to the most recent (2014) report from the American Burn Association. More than 40 percent of all burns are from direct contact with flames, far outpacing scalding, electrical or chemical burns. That’s not the worst part. Work-related injuries rank as the second largest source of flame burns. And infection is the most common complication – especially pneumonia.

Ensuring workplace compliance with FR clothing has been a difficult, longstanding issue, due mainly to the perception that early FR fabrics (which came on the market in the mid-1990s) just weren’t comfortable. FR-treated cotton materials then contained a treatment to the cotton fabrics that made them a little heavier – with some perceiving that the extra weight made them feel hotter. Over the years, fabrics have improved dramatically – due to aggressive research and development and consumer-based performance testing by respected innovation companies like DuPont and DRIFIRE. The result? Today’s FR fabrics provide protection and comfort – well beyond the basic protection of the early days. Today, FR properties are built into the yarns that are then woven seamlessly into the fabric – rather than applied as a heavy treatment. A new generation of performance fabrics features natural fibers combined with inherent, non-melting fibers to maximize comfort. Some of these fabrics include a blend of inherent, hydrophobic (water repelling) and natural hydrophilic (water absorbing) fibers to provide temperature and moisture management.

Scientific research has rather quickly defined how best to measure the comfort of fabrics when they are used in extreme conditions, from military and industry-based applications to sports scenarios such as mountaineering. This “science of comfort” is typically determined by three factors: absorption, wicking and fast-drying capability.  These are the keys that keep wearers cool, fresh and dry. Absorption is the rate at which moisture is pulled away from the skin and into the fabric. Wicking transports moisture evenly through the fabric to its surface, then allows it to disperse rather than remain trapped in the fabric next to the skin. Dry time measures fabric’s ability to dry.

The science of comfort as applied to FR has expanded to include lighter-weight performance fabrics (with high-level protection per ounce – better than earlier, heavier versions of the same fabrics), improved washability (FR protection will not wash or wear out for the life of the garment since it is embedded into the yarn rather than applied as a treatment), environmentally friendly (no chemical processes) and even odor control (fabric technologies that makes fabrics resistant to odor-causing bacteria).

The net result of more comfortable fabric innovations is better compliance - more workers are more open to wearing protection. With new standards driven by OSHA and the desire to do right for our professionals, it is important to provide comfortable FR gear to improve safety.

The newest generation of lighter weight FR fabrics also protect against another safety hazard: heat stress. Heat stress affects workers exposed to extreme temperatures in their work environments – both indoors and outdoors. While often considered a distraction, when the body cannot cool itself enough to maintain a healthy temperature, it can result in illness, incapacitation and a distraction in dangerous environments. Heat stress related illnesses include heat rash, heat cramps, dizziness or fainting, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and a worsening of existing medical conditions.

Although heavier fabrics may provide greater protection from flames, they also can increase heat load. This is why a new generation of lighter weight fabrics has emerged: these maintain the same – or even higher – degree of protection with a greater degree of comfort through their lightness. In fact, scientific testing has revealed that some performance fabrics keep skin temperature up to 7 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler.

Lighter weight FR is especially important to baselayer technology. Oil and gas companies are increasingly looking to require FR underwear as a baseline safety to protect more workers – so that the first layer of clothing that someone puts on in the morning can become his or her last line of defense in a fire or heat stress situation.    Imagine a scenario where a worker’s coverall or shirt is open a few buttons on the top – and their baselayer is 100% cotton or non-FR poly-cotton blend because this helps the worker “stay cool.”  The worker is exposed to a flash fire, and their non-FR baselayers made of fabrics that do not extinguish, do melt and do drip increase the severity of burns. These types of baselayers should always be avoided. But give a worker a lightweight FR baselayer, and the worker is more likely to button-up, and if not, is better protected by their baselayer if exposed to a flash fire. And baselayers that offer moisture wicking, when combined with a wicking outer garment, are more effective than traditional baselayers to reduce heat stress.

In April, NASCAR’s ToyotaCar 250 saw a flash fire occur in the pits due to a malfunction on the head of a gas can. As a result, NASCAR has mandated that entire race teams begin wearing more than just their exterior flame suit; now the crews must wear FR underwear, socks, balaclavas and gloves. NASCAR is not alone in motorsports. FIA – the global governing body for motorsports – requires that all drivers and co-drivers wear FR long johns in addition to a protective suit. The increased protection of the baselayer has been credited in reducing both the number and severity of burn injuries associated with wrecks and crashes – for all types of motorsports. And lightweight, comfortable, wicking performance baselayers are what the athletes are used to and want to wear.

A thriving global oil and gas industry holds tremendous promise for the future of FR apparel and personal protective equipment. Stricter safety regulations and heightened awareness about safety have resulted in an overall higher standard of protection for workers. While this is good news, the U.S. oil and gas industry still has an occupational fatality rate nearly eight times higher than the rate for all workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a record number of deaths in the oil and gas extraction sector in 2012 – a 23% increase from 2011 – even as workplace deaths trended downward overall.

In summary, FR protection today meets higher industry standards, while workers are discovering that they do not have to sacrifice comfort to do their jobs well – and more safely. 

Hines and Pastene will present a free webinar on increasing safety and performance with FR clothing Oct.1st, 2015. Register today and invite your colleagues to join in. 

 About the authors

ROB HINES / VICE PRESIDENT, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

Hines joined DRIFIRE in 2008 and is the current vice president of product development. He manages product development for the DRIFIRE military and industrial markets, and works closely with the drirelease® textile team. Prior to joining DRIFIRE, Hines was the director of manufacturing at Johnston Textiles. In addition to Hines' extensive fabric knowledge and experience, he has two fabric patents on comfortable FR fabrics and is a published author on many topics imperative to the textile industry.

BOB PASTENE / EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, SALES & MARKETING

Pastene joined DRIFIRE in 2013 and is the current executive vice president of sales and customer service. His role encompasses the oversight of the military and industrial sales, customer service and marketing teams. He is responsible for the expansion of DRIFIRE into a global brand and for further penetration of the domestic industrial and military markets. Pastene has more than 30 years of experience in progressive sales and management, including his most recent role as senior vice president of sales at Securitas North America prior to joining DRIFIRE, and prior to that as vice president of sales for Aramark. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.