Workplace Solutions Personal protective equipment

Protective clothing

Flame-resistant versus non-flammable PPE: Why does it matter?

Responding is Jake Hirschi, director of sourcing and production, CarbonX, Salt Lake City.

Not all flame-resistant clothing is created equal. Although similar in name, an inherently flame-resistant garment likely does not provide the same level of protection as an FR-treated material or a truly non-flammable fiber blend. The differences in the flammability performance of flame-resistant materials can mean the difference between life and death in a hazardous environment.

The bulk of the protective clothing solutions on the market today are categorized as flame-resistant, fire-resistant, FR, flame-retardant or fire-retardant – although the latter two terms are often used to describe chemical treatments done to inhibit fabric flammability. Flame-resistance may be achieved by using fibers that inherently will not support flame or by applying this type of chemical finish to a fabric. If a fabric is inherently flame-resistant, its thermal protective properties will not wash out or wear away.

The most defining characteristic of an FR fabric is that it does not support combustion in the absence of an external flame source. FR products ignite with difficulty, burn slowly when set on fire and – most important – self-extinguish when the heat source is removed. Some FR fabrics off-gas to prevent combustion and may char or break open after exposure.

All FR protective gear must meet minimum industry standards to be considered for use in a hazardous environment. The most commonly used test method for measuring flame-resistance is the Vertical Flame Test (ASTM D6413 Standard Test Method for Flame Resistance of Textiles), which outlines basic requirements for char length, afterflame and afterglow. But when it comes to ensuring worker safety, is providing standard levels of protection enough?

On the high end of the protection spectrum are non-flammable, fireproof and non-combustible products. Although FR protective clothing is designed to notcontribute to a burn injury in a thermal exposure, non-flammable apparel will actually protect a wearer in a thermal event. These solutions go above and beyond industry standards in providing a persistent thermal barrier with minimal heat conductivity. They will not burn, melt or ignite, and they maintain their strength and integrity even after intense exposure.

Non-flammable protective fabrics are often multi-functional and designed to protect against numerous types of hazards, including arc flash and flash fire, in one single garment. Many FR products meet industry-established requirements for protecting against a three-second flash fire exposure, but non-flammable options are on the market that can protect for as long as 10-15 seconds without breaking open. A few extra seconds to remove clothes or put out a fire can make a big difference in the degree and extent of a burn injury.

Whether categorized as flame-resistant or non-flammable, the end goal of all personal protective equipment is the same – protect the wearer from getting burned and increase the chance of survival in a worst-case scenario. When selecting PPE, evaluate all of your options to determine which solution is most likely to deliver this result.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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