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Key factors in selecting FR clothing

November 1, 2009
We're in the initial phases of coming into compliance with NFPA 70E and I'm starting to evaluate different flame-resistant garments. Why wouldn't I just go with the least expensive garment that meets the standard?

Answered by Mark Saner, technical manager, Workrite Uniform Co., Oxnard, CA.

Although garments can look very similar on the surface, they often contain different characteristics. This is especially true for flame-resistant garments, in which key elements, such as fabric brand used and construction techniques, can make a real impact on both performance and wear life over time. Evaluating FR clothing is about finding the best balance of protection, comfort and value.

Protection considerations: The safety of your employees is the most important factor, so the No. 1 consideration is protection.

  • Flame-resistant durability. You need to make sure the fabric provides the protection level you require, and also have confidence that the FR protection will last over the wear life of the garment. Many garments today last years, which can mean 75 launderings or more.
  • FR manufacturer experience. You want to have the confidence that the next garment you buy will possess the same quality and FR performance as the last one you bought. The manufacturer should have ongoing quality-control processes to ensure the integrity of the garment and the ability to track every garment back to the original fabric roll.
  • Withstanding real-world conditions. The fabric and garments should meet the minimum standard requirements. They also should be constructed for durability and designed to withstand real-world conditions. "Real-world" conditions take into consideration performance after many wash-and-wear cycles as well as differing wash formulas. For example, industrial laundry wash formulas may be harsher than those cited in standards.

Comfort considerations: After protection, comfort is probably the second-most important variable. If your employees dislike their FR uniform, they may not wear it properly.

  • Wear tests. In recent years, many new FR fabrics have entered the market, so you will have a choice. On the subject of comfort, one way to really know what works best in your work environment is to have your employees conduct wear tests for various garments. Working with a garment manufacturer that supports wear tests can be important.
  • Sizing and cut. Another key comfort factor is how the garments are sized and cut. A more generous fit and features such as pleats and gussets help with ease of movement and can feel better on the job. Also, does that manufacturer offer a "short" or "long" that has been proportionally cut to fit that stature?

Value considerations: Because FR garments are more expensive than regular work wear, value is an important consideration. For FR, value is more than just the up-front cost of a garment. If you have to replace it early because of excess shrinkage, or the seams fail, your cost per wear on that cheaper garment actually might be higher than a higher quality garment.

  • Garment shrinkage. Certain types of FR fabrics tend to have lower shrinkage. In particular, cotton-based FR fabrics can vary in terms of shrinkage over time; with 6 percent shrinkage, the garment has moved down a complete size and will not fit the wearer properly any longer.
  • Durable construction. Garments constructed for durability will also last longer. Construction features such as reinforced snaps, multiple bar tacks in high stress areas, reinforced pockets, double and triple feld seams, and high stitch counts are a few techniques that can extend the life of a garment.
With FR garments, the least expensive garment may not necessarily be the best choice in terms of value or providing protection over time. It is important to look for experienced suppliers who stand behind their products and have the resources to provide the ongoing consultation and services to help you manage a corporate flame-resistance program over time.