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Burning Questions

Published: 17th Dec 2013

In my previous article, published in the ADIPEC edition of HSME, I discussed the selection criteria and the general safety of protective workwear for different workplaces, plus the various hazards encountered by workforces, from fire and cold, to dust and rain.

In this article I will shed more light on fire resistant workwear. I will discuss the different standards that cover fire resistant clothes and how the nature of the hazard reflects on the selection of appropriate clothing.

Although fire resistant workwear is immediately associated with fire fighters' work, it’s also very important in many industries and workplaces that have fire hazards. While fire resistant clothes are worn in the oil and gas industry, I will also discuss wearer requirements in other industries such as telecom, power generation and even construction.

Clear selection criteria is important before choosing the proper type of fire resistant workwear that will save a worker’s life. Consider if the garment can be used to protect from arc flash hazards related to the power generation industry. Is it practical to be used in industries such as telecommunications? Is it really fit for the construction industry? Do the relevant standards guarantee a safe worker, or just reduce the risks associated with fire?

A glance at the standards

Many national and international organisations articulate standards for fire protection and fire resistance. Examples of such firms include OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials),NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), UL (Underwriters Laboratories), and ISO (International Organization for Standardization).

In the United States, the NESC (National Electrical Safety Code) is a set of standards published by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) to set the ground rules for safety regarding people who work on or near an electric supply, communications lines and associated equipment.

You can add to this list your local government authority, which will have its own civil defence standards, or variations of the international standards.

In Canada, for example, BP (British Petroleum) proactively issued its own standards for fire retardant workwear in 2001. The company reviews these periodically to be sure that they comply with the country’s rules and standards, as well as changes within the industry. CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) also issues a guide for the selection and use of fire resistant workwear.

In the construction industry, the Canadian WCB (Workers Compensation Board) issues guidance that specifies welding and cutting operations are hazardous occupations requiring fire retardant workwear. This is based on the Canadian Standards Association for Occupational Health and Safety’s general standards, section 37.9.

The European Union also issues several standards that pertain to flame retardant clothes and after continuous reviews, the changes to Heat and Flame Standards for protective clothing are as follows: EN 470-1 is replaced by EN 11611, EN 531 is replaced by EN 11612 and EN 533 is replaced by EN 14116.

Why fire resistant workwear?

In a flash fire, without the protection of flame resistant workwear the worker is exposed firstly to the heat of the fireball, and secondly to the heat of the burning fabric of his/her clothes. The heat generated by a burning fabric depends on the composition of the material – whether it’s treated or non-treated, clean or soiled with hydrocarbons, and its weight and weave.

According to OSHA, the use of flame resistant clothing greatly improves the chance of a worker surviving and regaining quality of life after a flash fire. Flame resistant clothing can significantly reduce both the extent and severity of burn injuries to the body. In order to achieve higher fire protection, OSHA advises employers to comply with the standards number 29 CFR 1910.132(a).

As a response to a rising number of injuries from fire accidents in the oil and gas industry in the United States, in May 2010 the US Department of Labor put forward legislation for oil and gas organisations to apply and implement OSHA standards 29 CFR 1910.132 (a)-(h) where applicable. The organisations are also required to comply with the related NFPA standards, namely NFPA 2112 and NFPA 2113.

According to CAPP, fire resistant workwear provides protection against flash fires in two ways. First of all, it is designed so that it does not burn when exposed to flame. This in itself provides protection for the worker by eliminating or reducing injury when clothing burns after exposure to flash fire. Secondly, fire resistant workwear is designed to decrease the amount of heat that penetrates the skin during a flash fire.

The fabric basically provides a barrier between the flash fire and the worker's skin, dropping the amount of energy transmitted to the skin thus providing protection. In this case, the thicker the fabric used in making of the fire resistant workwear, the better the degree of protection to the worker. Accordingly, it is very important to consider the type of garments needed for working on a site with flash fire potential as, put simply, the workwear has the potential either to boost or cut the associated hazard.

Procurement guide

A great deal of effort and research by health and safety professionals helps to guide what the manufacturers make to suitably protect workers from flame and heat associated with fire. It also provides a road map to the procurement professionals to make the right decision in selecting and purchasing the right workwear fit for the occasion.

It is very important for the people who are responsible for employees’ health and safety to be aware of the standards and requirements for PPE and accordingly articulate and craft their own guide and specifications. This will help them to acquire the correct products to protect the workforce from associated hazards and dangers.

Besides the selection criteria outlined in Fitting the Occasion, HSME, November 2013, which were that a garment is fit for purpose, comfortable, durable and complies legally with standards, the selection of flame resistant workwear is based on the following principles:

• The use of hazard assessments to identify the need for flame resistant workwear

• Knowing the related standards that can be adopted to help in setting the selection criteria and specification

• Evaluating the existing flame resistant workwear in the marketplace to decide those fit for the hazards identified on your site

• The articulation of specifications needed for the procurement of flame resistant workwear

The first principle from the above list is the sole responsibility of your Health and Safety department, while the other three principles can be worked jointly between Health and Safety and Procurement departments.

As per OSHA and CAPP, the wearing of fire resistant workwear should be considered as the basic standard for work in and near all oil and gas facilities. Any facilities or locations where oil or gas could be present can have an associated risk of flash fires.

Welding and cutting can also produce hazards such as sparks, spatter, radiation, slag, heat, hot metal, fumes and gases, and even electric shock. Since these hazards may cause burns, injury or death, it is important for welders and cutters to wear protective equipment that is adequate for these hazards at all times.

Welding and cutting operations can be encountered in the oil and gas industry as well as in construction and other associated industries. Regardless of the industry and workplace, the employer must ensure that all employees engaged in welding or cutting operations wear adequate fire retardant work clothing: fire retardant gauntlet type gloves and arm protection; an apron of fire retardant or other adequate material; appropriate eye and face protection against harmful radiation, or particles of molten metal, or from chipping and grinding welds; and safety boots.

The materials used in fire resistant clothing can protect against other workplace hazards as well, and should be considered even when the risk of a flash fire is low. These other hazardsmay include minor scrapes and abrasions, hot surfaces, some chemicals, sun and cold.

After assessing the hazards and earning the related standards, it is very important to know about your marketplace. What are the existing goods and to what extend do they comply with international standards? Knowing your market enables you to make realistic and appropriate choices during the procurement process. It also allows you to endorse some brands or manufactures, or even countries of origin, depending on the local authority norms and their preferred/adopted standards.

During your specification development you will have to differentiate between fire resistant and fire retardant workwear, as not only are they made from different fabrics, but they differ in terms of the strength of protection they offer. Naturally flame resistant fabrics are manufactured with fibres whose inherent properties make them flame resistant without a chemical treatment. The fabric’s effectiveness will not be reduced by repeated washing or wear. As such, these fabrics ensure optimum protection throughout the life of the garment.

Flame retardant, treated fabrics are produced by applying a finish to a fibre or fabric to reduce its flammability, or by incorporating a flame retardant chemical into the fibre prior to spinning. The flame retardant treatment chemicals are activated by intense heat, producing char and gases that inhibit combustion for a certain amount of time.

Because the flame retardant treatment is a chemical treatment which is washed out with time, the fabrics will only conform to heat and flame standards for a limited number of washes. Flame ‘resistant’ is therefore the proper term for this kind of protective clothing.

Shall I wear it?

Although flame resistant clothing protects workers from the possibility of burns, it is important to know that it only helps minimise the possibility, and does not eliminate it.

Unfortunately, wearing the wrong clothing will actually make burns and fires worse rather than acting as a protection against injury. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, rayon, and other blends will actually melt to the skin when exposed to intense heat. Cotton and natural fibres, on the other hand, act as a fuel that will burst into flames and continue to burn if a worker is exposed to extreme heat. These principles form the basis for the design of fire resistant workwear.

In a power generation industry hazards include arc fire, flash fire, or other sudden unexpected release of intense heat. For arc fires, an arc exposure value is measured as the amount of electrical energy per unit area. This value is applied as a rating to determine how effective flame resistant clothing is at meeting dangers from electrified equipment and arc fires.

If a person is knocked unconscious, flame resistant clothing can offer protection for the worker until they are rescued – some kinds of workwear is made to be either self-extinguishing or non-combustible so that a person's clothing will not continue to burn.

Shall we compensate?

Everybody agrees that work injuries affect business profitability and increase costs due to absenteeism, replacement and compensation of workers. Statistics suggest that explosions and fires account for 3% of workplace injuries and have the highest casualty rate of all possible workplace accidents.

There are four types of injuries commonly associated with fires and explosions:

• Primary Blast Injuries – occur due to the effects of pressure on body tissues, affecting ears and lungs

• Secondary Blast Injuries – occur when flying objects hit nearby workers

• Tertiary Blast Injuries – high energy explosions can lift someone off the ground and cause them to fly into surrounding objects

• Quaternary Blast Injuries – everything else that happens as a result of an explosion; that is, crush injuries, burns and inhalation of toxic substances

Besides these types of injuries the worker may encounter, death can also result from such accidents.

In the United Kingdom, the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) reported that according to RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, 1995) electricity, fire and drowning/asphyxiation accidents accounted for around one in 12 fatalities to workers, but fewer than one in 100 non-fatal injuries to employees.

As per their report for 2012/13, workplace injuries and ill health (excluding cancer) cost society an estimated £13.8 billion in 2010/11. Fire accidents contribute to these figures, indicating a motive for employers to implement health and safety policies and use proper PPE in their workplaces is to reduce these costs – and improve the productivity and ROI for their businesses.

Implementing the health and safety standards and regulations within the workplace may cost the employer millions every year, depending on the type of industry and the company’s size, but the emphasis should always be on safeguarding workers’ safety rather than the cost.

It’s a basic human right to have a safe workplace, and an employee’s health and safety can’t be compensated with money.

Published: 17th Dec 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Ali Sadeddin is a mechanical engineer who has been involved in the construction field for more than 20 years. Having more than 14 years of intensive exposure to procurement and operations in the construction sector, he is currently serving as Procurement Director (Head of Procurement) at Khidmah LLC, a leading company in facility and property management.