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On the frontlines of worker safety: Flame-Resistant Uniforms

The power of electricity is something to be respected. For those working with power sources or energized parts, flame-resistant (FR) uniforms and apparel are essential elements to their employers safety strategy. While the Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates employee safety overall, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) creates voluntary standards to provide employers in the manufacturing, petroleum, chemical, electric and gas utility industries with a more complete picture of how to protect their employees.

According to the NFPA, electrical dangers such as shock, electrocution, arc flash and arc blast will always be present on the job, but proper training and safety strategies can minimize the likelihood of injuries and fatalities. An arc flash or blast is a constant workplace hazard. Its defined as a short circuit that flashes from one exposed live conductor to another that blasts outwards with the force similar to that of dynamite. And the flash, lasting shorter than a second, can generate temperatures of 5,000F or more, which can ignite and/or melt poly/cotton or cotton work clothing. FR clothing can significantly reduce burn injury and may increase the workers chances of survival if caught in a flash fire or electric arc.

The NFPA 70E safety standard has been around since 1979, but a revision to the NFPA 70E in 2000 was the first to indicate that FR clothing be worn in the industrial workplace when working on or near energized parts. This means, in addition to the more traditional industries, those working in amusement parks, entertainment complexes and even casinos should be equipped with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and protective apparel. So whether the electrical panel being opened is on a golf course or in an adventure wonderland, according to NFPA guidelines, FR clothing should be worn.

Most recently, OSHA ruled that employers, not the employees, must pay for necessary PPE. In a Nov. 15, 2007, press release, OSHA administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. stated, The new rule would have substantial safety benefits that will result in more than 21,000 fewer occupational injuries per year, which will also save more than $200 million per year in cost including medical and insurance bills, not to mention reduce the pain and suffering of many employees. Employers now have until May 2008 to change their existing PPE policies to accommodate the new OSHA ruling.

Tracy Linton, director of sales for protective apparel at Aramark Uniform Services (AUS), can also list statistics that underscore the importance of FR safety apparel and PPE. For more than five years, he and his team have worked with Aramarks FR clients from coast to coast.

For decades, AUS has offered FR clothing for the traditional industries. The FR product line was revamped in 2000 when NFPA 70E revisions created a wider spectrum of workers needing FR. The biggest misconception for this newly identified group is that workers wearing 100 percent cotton are protected, says Linton. Studies have shown that, given daily job tasks of an electrical maintenance employee, cotton could potentially protect only a very small portion of the work day.

Before a company can determine what type of protective gear is needed, it may need to hire someone to conduct a complete analysis to identify potential hazards. Once the professional evaluation is completed and the employer decides to move forward with a FR apparel program, it can be enacted for a nominal increase in expense. Linton says, For less than the cost of a can of soda per day, an employer can upgrade from 100 percent cotton work clothing to FR uniforms

For electrical maintenance workers and contractors, working hands-on with potentially dangerous conductors, circuit parts and other energized parts is a common component of everyday routine. Accidents especially electric arcs can happen in an instant, no matter how experienced a worker may be. Linton says that employer education helps diminish the risks inherent to the workplace. Safe working conditions and proper training are the first steps in keeping employees safe. But the last line of defense in the event of an accident is protecting the workforce with a reliable FR clothing program.

Aramark says it understands the dangers that electrical maintenance workers and contractors face every day. It has developed an FR clothing and PPE program that takes various temperature extremes and climates into account. Its ultimate goal is to provide a wide range of FR solutions that are tailor-made to fit any job anywhere depending on what its customers safety experts choose for their employees. AUS sales specialists have a great deal of experience with the electrical maintenance industry and can help assemble a uniform program that includes lightweight and breathable garments that can adapt to any situation. Working with safety professionals and the client, AUS can help design a FR program that ensures comfort, visibility, movement and flexibility for the wearer. AUS can help any company comply with NFPA 70E and better protect their workforce in the process.

The following chart is based on information specified in NFPA 70E standards and OSHA regulations:
Nomex IIIA 93% Nomex, 5% Kevlar,
2% antistatic fiber
4.5 4.6 Flash fire
Electric arc
Fire service station
6 5.7
7.5 6.6
Rayon Blend
65% Nomex IIIA,
35% FR Lenzing
4.5 4.2 Flash fire
Electric arc
Ultra Soft
88% cotton, 12% nylon,
FR treated
7 8.7 Flash fire
Electric arc, particularly 70E
Welding and molten ferrous metals
9 12.4
Indura 100% cotton, FR treated 9 10.8 Flash fire
Electric arc
Welding and molten ferrous metals
7 7.7
14 18.3
VINEX 85% vinyl, 15% rayon 6 5.6 Sheds aluminum splash
8.5 8.1
11 10.7

* Fabric weights presented here are typical weights for the most common FR shirts, pants and coveralls. Arc ratings for each fabric are dependant upon the fabrics weight.

NFPA standards and OSHA regulations have determined that employees in the electric utility industry wear FR clothing and PPE while performing many of their daily, on-the-job activities. Aramark has become a trusted partner for electric utility companies who need to comply with these regulations, as well as design a FR clothing program that their employees will accept.

AUS can coordinate options to suit all aspects of the electric utility industry. Also of value is the choice to buy or rent many of the FR garments and PPE based on the customers actual specifications and needs. There are a number of different options available when it comes to FR fabrics and garments. This resource and the chart on the previous page pulls NFPA and OSHA guidelines together with the different types of fabric, what qualities each possesses and how they compare to one another to help choose the right garments electrical employees.

Its important to understand that FR fabrics typically fall into two main categories: inherently FR fabrics and fabrics that are specially treated to become flame resistant. With inherently FR fabrics, flame resistance is an essential characteristic of the fiber itself from which the garments are made. Specially treated FR fabrics have an applied chemical treatment added to them to give them their flame resistant properties.

Just as there is no one tool that is perfect for every task, theres no one FR garment that meets every need of every employee. Every FR garment is made up of different fibers that all contain unique properties that have their strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation. To balance out strengths and weaknesses, manufacturers have often blended different fibers to create FR garments that can perform and protect in a variety of different workplace environments. When choosing the right FR fabrics, its important to keep in mind what the specific fiber properties are to best meet safety requirements.

While the personalization of clothing is useful for workplace identity and morale, its important to keep in mind the safety ramifications in doing so. Ultimately, the employer must weigh the benefits of employee identification with the hazards they pose to the overall safety of the workforce. Electrical customers should work with their safety managers and review applicable OSHA and NFPA guidelines when making these decisions. While company logos are helpful to identify the worker as a trained technician, those same additions can get in the way of motion if not part of the garment itself. On the flip side, any logo or company identification incorporated into the garment needs to be done in a way that does not weaken the fabric or create its own hazard to the wearer.

Headquartered in Burbank, Calif., Aramark Uniform Services (AUS) is a leading supplier of uniforms and career apparel. We supply uniforms to more than two million people at more than 200,000 businesses in the United States via rental, purchase and lease programs. AUS also offers image enhancement programs, delivering image and safety solutions to fit any size of budget and for any size of business. AUS is a division of Aramark Uniform & Career Apparel LLC, an indirect wholly owned subsidiary of Aramark Corporation.

At AUS, our philosophy is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to providing a FR clothing program for our customers. Our experience has taught us that each industry faces its own unique workplace risks and challenges and, therefore, requires specialized FR clothing solutions that best address these specific needs. By understanding the different industries we serve and working with our customers safety departments, we can help develop FR solutions that fit the needs of their workers.

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2008 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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