Fire retardant PPE is critical for the protection of workers in a variety of different professions and industries. However, it’s not just about specifying the right product, it’s also about caring for it throughout its life.
The UK’s Textile Services Association (TSA) is the trade body representing commercial laundries and textile suppliers. Many of its members have specialist expertise in fire retardant PPE, supplying, managing, and maintaining protective workwear for a variety of industries. Here Shyju Skariah, technical services manager at the TSA, considers the issues.
Regulating Technical Textiles
Anyone working near flames or intense heat needs to be protected with well thought-through risk assessments and safety measures at work. The last barrier between dangerous elements and these workers are, of course, the appropriate protective equipment, especially those designed to protect from the thermal hazards and other risks such as those relating to electric arcs. Most of these Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) products are specialist textile articles, a shield line of safety between workers and seriously harmful elements such as flames, metal shrapnel from electrodes, radiation and so on. The specification and care of a garment can literally be the difference between life and death.
“the specification and care of a garment can literally be the difference between life and death”
Regulations in most countries state that employers have the overall duty of care towards their employees. This includes conducting health and safety hazard and risk assessments of their premises and of the different job functions the employees are expected to undertake. In the UK these are covered by the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (UK) and the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999. Meanwhile the employees must cooperate with the employer in respect of any relevant statutory health and safety provisions. Employees are expected to take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves and of others who may be affected by their acts (or omissions) at work.
For example, the law in the United Kingdom requires that every employer must make suitable and sufficient assessment of:
- The risks to health and safety that employees are exposed to whilst they are at work
- The risks to the health and safety of other people, not in the employer’s employment, arising out of or in connection with the work the company is undertaking
The risks that require to be assessed include things such as:
- Heat, and hot objects and flame
- Chemical splash – from a Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) assessment
- Electrical discharge
The UK regulations prohibit employers from carrying out any work which is liable to expose employees to a substance hazardous to health without first making a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the risks created by that work, and the steps that need to be taken to comply with the regulations.
Textile-Based PPE Strategies
Unfortunately, there’s no way around the fact that certain professions carry the risk of being exposed to intense heat and second-degree burns. These professions include welders, oil and gas engineers, the fire service and other emergency teams, and the industrial workers operating in steel mills in and around blast furnaces. It’s absolutely essential that these workers are protected by robust working practices and appropriately chosen and looked after PPE.
When it comes to a textile-based PPE strategy, laundry processes play a central and vital role in the overall scheme for the care and maintenance of the products. Some specialist laundries may also procure the PPE. However, the commercial laundry has responsibilities that go beyond just procurement, supply, and care of the PPE. Before issuing any garments, the laundry has to gauge what the customer’s day-to-day operations are and how the PPE will be used. As well as ensuring that the end-user is protected fully, the laundry will also look to ensure that its customer gains value for money from the PPE, by maximising its service life.
It is important to remember that no employer can delegate the overall responsibility for the health and safety assessment to another person or organisation. However, providers of advice and information, such as commercial laundries, do have a duty of care and must not exceed their competence. The employer could reasonably expect that somebody advising them on the purchase of PPE knew what they were talking about.
Specialist laundries are well placed to work alongside the employer and conduct a thorough assessment of all the operations involved. The first step is for the employer to ensure that they have sufficient information to choose the required PPE specification. Then the laundry can determine, with their customer, the number of items of PPE per wearer and estimate the approximate lifespan of the garments involved. This may be measured in terms of time, for example 24 months, or in terms of washes, such as 70 in total. This is crucial because the success of the PPE strategy is not just about having the item laundered and cared for correctly, it is also about the number of times it is cleaned professionally, as each cleaning cycle may reduce the effectiveness of the protection given by the garment.
Tracking the garment from its first use all the way through to the end of its service life becomes an integral part of the investment. The laundry will almost always identify the garments using a technology to track the item, such RFID (radio frequency identification) or barcodes. This helps maintain control over the number of processes and repairs the PPE goes through.
Choosing an appropriate wash and dry process is determined according to the respective level of soiling. Even in the severest of cases, industrial wash processes are designed to remove heavy soiling. The laundry will inspect the PPE after each washing process and ensure that damages are repaired. It might be the case that there are non-removable stains, if so then these will be highlighted and recorded.
“tracking and monitoring garments ensures they are taken out of service at the agreed point”
In some cases, the PPE garments could be damaged beyond repair (DBR). The laundry will replace these, as per the contractual arrangements. However, because everything can be tracked and traced, the customer can have peace of mind, knowing that the laundries have an effective platform to manage their services and their commitments.
Indeed, with modern, highly optimised barcoding or radio frequency systems, the laundry will have a lasting record of the garment, including the number of processes, garment rotation and the number of repairs required – all of which the customer and laundry can share to make sure everyone is kept informed. This transparent system of tracking and monitoring garments ensures they are taken out of service at the agreed point – or earlier, if they are damaged beyond repair.
Fire Retardant PPE: The Importance of Good Practice
A good example of high-performance fire retardant PPE is the jacket used in welding jobs. Unfortunately, in many places it is a common habit for such jackets to be taken home to be washed by the employee. This is not good practice as the employer has lost the traceability of the garment, and the item will almost certainly be washed and cared for inadequately.
Such protective clothing often becomes heavily soiled due to the demands of the working environment. Looks can always be deceiving when it comes to workwear and high-performance garments are no exception. Deposits of oil, grease and other stains can quickly build up on the surface of the garment and can ‘mask’ the fire retardant properties of the fabric. Using a commercial laundry would guarantee the correct rotation of garments, ensuring that the soiling cannot build up to unsafe levels.
Critically, if the garment becomes contaminated with any flammable substances, it becomes a hazard to the wearer. A splash of hot welding spatter could ignite the contaminated area, and the flammable substance will ensure that it continues to burn. So, whilst it might not be visible and the garment might feel cleaner or look better than before, it’s protective qualities might not be up to the job anymore.
It’s vital that employers communicate with their industrial laundry supplier to identify, declare, and constantly update the list of substances that the PPE are exposed to. If they are not kept up to date, the laundry processors may be in the dark when it comes to a new potential element that needs cleaning from the textile with a suitable washing and effluent management process.
The bottom line: regular laundry processing is essential for fire retardant garments such as those used by welders. It means that any contamination is safely removed, whilst leaving the fire retardant qualities intact.
Testing the Effectiveness of Fire Retardant PPE
To ensure that PPE is still up to the job it has been specified for, it needs to be tested. Testing for PPE attributes may be considered as falling into two types: non-destructive and destructive.
For example, hi-vis PPE can be non-destructively monitored for reflectance and colour using simple comparator methods, as specified by the manufacturers. In a commercial laundry, these results can be added to the PPE history in the garment database, and the item will pass or fail the test, with the laundry amending its records accordingly.
For resistance to chemical splash, monitoring may be non-destructive or destructive, depending on the nature of the chemical and the composition of the PPE. In either case it is a useful idea to include a requirement on the user to report incidents of chemical splash.
For items which remain undamaged when tested with specific chemicals, the tracking system could be programmed to flag them up, after a specified number of washes. At this point the item can be removed from the flow, testing the effectiveness of the fire retardant PPE line, and measured using the appropriate test method.
In cases where the PPE may be destroyed by the test, and this applies in particular to garments designed for protection against heat, flame, and molten metal splash, alternative means of examination may be needed. Even though the fire resistant properties of a PPE may not actually be degraded by wear and processing, the clothing might still not offer sufficient protection. This is because the soiling level retained on the item, even after laundering, may contribute significantly to the fire load. For example, the soiling may be more than the maximum amount the cleaning process can remove.
So, how would an alternative scheme work for fire retardant PPE that can’t be tested without destroying the item to ensure it is cared for effectively?
To start with, there may be a need for a paper trail from the fabric manufacturer, through the manufacturer and supplier, demonstrating the traceability of the fire retardant properties of the PPE. Next, the textile rental company/laundry representative should have documented the discussions with the employer for the selection, installation, and training of staff and wearers of the PPE.
The cleaning should be carried out according to the process specified by the PPE designer, the textile manufacturer, and the detergent supplier, which ideally should be validated and properly monitored. As part of the cleaning process, the garment may be inspected during sorting to assess the soiling level (compared to, for example, photographs of acceptable soiling levels).
A thorough inspection at the end of the cleaning process helps assess the finished appearance of the PPE, in terms of soil and stain removal. Together with an assessment of the state of repair, this can give a good qualitative measure of the garment’s fitness for purpose.
“experimentation with the test pieces should give a base line expectation for the performance of the wash process”
What else can be done to check the degree of soiling level removal? The process agreed between the PPE manufacturer, the detergent supplier and the laundry can be assessed using artificially soiled test pieces. These are cotton or polyester and cotton fabric swatches which have been impregnated with different types of soiling, designed to defeat even the most severe wash process. The swatches start off dark and get progressively lighter as the wash process they are given becomes more severe. The lightening can be measured using an appropriate reflectance meter.
Experimentation with the test pieces should give a base line expectation for the performance of the wash process in terms of improved reflectance. Further experimentation would allow an incremental range of soiled PPE to be processed and the final outcome to be assessed. The point at which the processed PPE becomes acceptable should correspond to the most soiled PPE that the process can handle. These PPE could serve as the basis for the quality assessment photographs to be used in sorting and at final inspection. The next time you see a laundry service provider’s truck driving past, bear in mind what they do and how optimised their processes are to keep PPE fit for purpose. Maybe it’s time to ask, “Are my staff adequately protected? Is my laundry solution for staff workwear and PPE sufficient? Does it meet the duty of care to everyone I employ?”