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EXCEEDING STANDARDS

Published: 10th May 2011

I’m not one to preach, but in my position as an industrial and protective apparel consultant I do get asked for advice on the subject of what PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should be worn and where.

So, subsequently I have to have an opinion, which I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear falls strongly in favour of a safe working environment, or suitable protective apparel where risks are encountered.

Now, after being embarrassed into getting a bit fitter by my wife, who is training for her first Triathlon, I recently rejoined the local gym and during the holiday period bought myself a new bike.

Those who know me will know that I am a fan of speed and danger where wheels are involved, so I decided that some protective gear would also be advisable.

Naturally I went to the ‘specialist’ companies for their advice, only to find that in the case of cycling helmets they are all pretty much the same, regardless of whether you pay £25 or £125 ( $40 or $200). But, as I keep insisting that my children wear the things - and my son was recently seriously injured by a van while cycling - I could really do nothing else myself, could I?

I needed some more information, so I spent a day trawling the various websites dealing with cycling safety equipment and reading the results of studies over the past 15 years, during which time, I might add, designs have changed very little.

I found out that in certain states in the US it is compulsory to wear a helmet - as it is in Austria and various other places too. Very admirable, enforcing a standard. I learned a few other things as well.

There is a European safety standard for cycle helmets, as you would expect, to give peace of mind to the buyer. Helmet shells can be made of plastic or carbon fibre, or any other lightweight clever concoction of compounds.

It is advised that the straps leave suitable space for the ears - in a triangle format, as doubtless you will have seen. The liner is Styrofoam and designed to compress permanently on impact absorbing any impact. But here’s the thing…

Did you know that there is not a cycle helmet on the market that will protect the head (and brain) from linear deceleration in anything other than a low speed impact with a flat surface? Furthermore, the EN certification doesn’t require any different - it applies a minimum standard.

In most tests carried out by independent researchers there was no compression of the liner, indicating no impact absorption - especially where an outside force or variable factor such as speed, a moving vehicle, a cornered or sharp object was involved.

I couldn’t believe it! In most cases the shell of the helmet was compromised without affecting the Styrofoam, which means that the linear deceleration of the brain inside the skull was not halted, but indeed sent in the other direction by bouncing - with a possibility of further injury.

A so-called safety product, which in actual fact is virtually useless. And a European standard worn as a badge of honour which is meaningless in this environment... Can you see where this is going?

Practical considerations

Let me ask you a question. If you were ever to need to purchase a set of protective uniforms for your employees or contractors, be that helmets, coveralls, shirts and pants or gloves, how well would you research before hand?

Decide if you would:

A. buy the cheapest B. buy whatever was listed in your company’s record or tender document without question C. take advice from a colleague D. buy any product that displayed the ‘relevant’ European or US standard E. research the best product, consult an expert to gain a better understanding of the standards, and make an informed risk analysis before purchasing

If you think that I would not be so presumptuous as to dictate to you what I think you should do, then you are wrong.

Get expert help and advice, or risk an ill informed decision that could endanger the lives of those whom you ARE responsible for.

Ok, so maybe you’ll think I’m advertising the services of people like myself, or helping to line the pockets of the large companies who produce these products. It may appear that way, but if you ever have to deal with the death of an employee through the failure of or inadequate PPE, then you may think otherwise.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been shown products that would clearly not withstand the hazard that they were meant to protect against.

“But they meet the safety standard,” I am told. Can I remind you about the cycle helmets here…

The application and display of a standard is (in the case of PPE) to signify that the product gives a minimum level of protection and does not enhance risk to the wearer, when encountering a hazard appropriate to the standard.

Let me say that again, it usually indicates the minimum standard of safety which should be achieved. So how do you decide on what to buy for a higher risk scenario? I think I have already answered that one.

There are many different types of flame resistant (FR) fabrics and they all perform differently and cope with different hazards in different ways.

Flame and thermal resistant fibres and fabrics can generally be divided into two groups: those that are ‘inherently flame resistant’ - whose resistance is an essential characteristic of the fibre from which it is made - and ‘treated fabrics’ - those which achieve their flame resistance through special treatments.

A particular manufacturer has done a great job of promoting a certain Aramid fibre in various blends and thanks to their marketing skill and product excellence nearly everyone knows the name of it. In fact I still encounter buyers who assume that this particular fabric is either the best or the only FR fabric available. Ask a professional welder what he knows and he will tell you why this Aramid does not perform for him - allowing penetration when in contact with burning white hot spatter. Not good.

Likewise, there are those who will proudly tell you how inexpensively they kitted themselves and their colleagues out in the latest lightweight 100% cotton FR treated coveralls, only for them to choke a little when you tell them that their flame resistance may be completely gone in 25 washes (non durable FR) and their reflective stripes could actually ignite.

Both options above may meet the current standards, but without all the information on a product it’s easy to make the wrong choices. You can buy garments that perform in every way better than Aramids, or that are actually cheaper to use than the low end cotton product when you realise that they have a permanent protection and will be replaced through wear less frequently.

Without wanting to do the manufacturers of said products a disservice, the point is that all of these have their place for different purposes.

There is no perfect flame resistant garment system that meets all needs. Each fibre or fabric has certain benefits or shortcomings. Blending fibres can give differing levels of protection and introduces other kinds of protection such as anti static properties.

For example, Aramids, polyimides and modacrylics are inherently FR and cotton, or cotton blends such as 88% cotton, 12% nylon have to be treated to become fire resistant.

Cottons or cotton blends can also have ‘durable FR treatment’, which does not deplete or degrade with appropriate care and will remain for the wear life expectancy of the garment… How many people haven’t been told that one as they bought their non-durable cotton coveralls?

Cost over safety can always be a difficult question to come to terms with. I realise that cost is a factor and when you are dealing in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars - in purchasing you have to keep your eye on the cost differentials.

As alluded to earlier, problems also arise from the tendering process. For years your company may have bought a particular fabric, but the reason for this is probably lost in the mists of time. So, when the next large tender is issued the standard items are listed and there are all our old favourites which in many cases - and I can think of several in the last year - are not suitable for the risk categories of the job they will be used in.

To defy all logic, I know of one large company who insist on using a particular FR fabric even though the alternatives offered are either superior in performance or identical, but less costly. There’s no arguing out of that one in either direction - the tender/product buyer’s specifications are apparently written in stone - to the detriment of the company’s safety and profits.

Look beyond the standard

It is imperative that you look beyond the standard mark. In the field of safety wear I have visited testing labs, fabric manufacturers, corporate offices and design studios alike and in all I have found the same attitude of genuine desire to produce the best product.

That means that all of these highly skilled people who are involved in the development of your safety wear have one thing only in mind - your protection.

Even so, this can sometimes be let down by the manufacturing process. Some of the big named brands do not always use consistent sources of manufacturing, fabric producer or even own the process. This only detracts from the performance of the garments in their resulting inconsistency - both for quality and safety.

I have, however, witnessed the kind of vertical manufacturing which ensures your ability to trust the brand whose label is on your sleeve or in the collar - the complete accountability from cotton bale to coverall, from fibre to flame resistant base layer. So tick that box on your checklist of reasons for buying this product.

These companies and individuals live and breathe the standards - not to achieve them, but to exceed them. They live in a world of constant competition to find the latest innovation in protection. They are constantly developing their designs for better comfort and safety.

They even pay attention to other factors such as manufacturing processes for eco friendliness without compromising quality and performance. Yes! - there is now a FR fabric available whose manufacturing bi-products and waste are completely recycled and used again. Not only that, but the fabric produced outperforms a well known Aramid for abrasion resistance, protection against arc flash, fading in sunlight and comfort - and is less expensive too. Now that’s attention to detail.

I do not want to bore you with tales of long chain synthetic polyamide fibres, acrylonitrile units, phenylene bibenzimidazole or oxidised polyacrylinitrile. But, the important thing to remember here is that without the clever people working hard behind the scenes to come up with these things we would, quite simply, still be exposing people to extreme hazard with no protection.

So how exactly should you identify the right product?

Let me see if I can help by giving you some things to look for.

What are the common causes of ignition and burning of work apparel?

1. Ignition of flammable liquids and/or other flammable soiling of the garment 2. Contact with, or close proximity to, molten metals 3. Contact with sparks and slag from flame cutting or welding 4. Contact with open flames 5. High energy electrical discharges or other electric arc events 6. Explosion of vapours from volatile liquids or from flammable gases 7. Ignition of combustible dusts

Where any of these risks of ignition exist there is a need for flame resistant garments. Don’t take my word for it - this is fact.

Every flame or thermal protective garment must provide the wearer with the expected degree of protection for the useful life of the garment. Garments are specified based on the employer’s evaluation of workplace hazard.

Protective garments should be comfortable, hard wearing and durable - preferably as described earlier. In addition to these considerations, there may be other hazards present such as chemical or molten metal exposure. Garments should be able to withstand laundering to remove soiling?and flammable contaminants and be returned to service without excessive colour loss, shrinkage or change in surface appearance.

Does the supplier or manufacturer do any of the following:

• Educate in the need for and function of flame resistant or protective apparel

• Provide independent evaluations of available FR fabrics

• Advise changes in standards and regulatory requirements

• Offer training programmes and continual support to back up their product

Nobody should ever have to go to work and be put at unnecessary or avoidable risk - and only by dealing with the right kind of manufacturer and their distributors or agents can you ensure that you will get the best possible protection.

The safety standards are put in place as a guide to the minimum levels of protection. There is now talk of a global standard, though how soon that will become a reality is anyone’s guess.

By doing a little more research as a buyer you could actually greatly improve your workers’ performance through moral and occupational health - and therefore your profitability. Complacency about safety issues and requirements in the workplace is a sure-fire way to disaster - maybe not now, maybe not next year. But one death is one too many.

Think of your operation like an aircraft in service. You will wherever possible maintain that aircraft against a failure because if one does occur, it will almost certainly be fatal.

Or you could be like the guy I recently met whose workers were heavily exposed to combustible dust and had no protective gear whatsoever. No face masks, no shoes, no coveralls - definitely not flame resistant. His attitude was that should an explosion occur they had better run fast. This may be an extreme ignorance, but any ignorance of these issues amounts to the same thing.

While I do support the need for standards I also believe they should be enforced. This is not always easy in the workplace, but along with real punishment for those who ignore the rules we will continue to improve workplace safety.

This will be true whether you chose to follow the European or US models I urge you to follow. Unlike the cycle helmet, Personal Protective Equipment of any kind is compulsory in the majority of western countries and becoming so in the Middle East too.

Maybe that is why good PPE actually works? Because standards continue to improve thanks to research and commitment. And perhaps, until the cycle helmet becomes compulsory in a greater part of the world it will continue to follow a very basic standard?

If you’re are lucky enough to still be awake reading this by this point, and you think you need FR work wear and are not an employer, please leave this article where someone in authority can see it. ?

Author

Paul Toplis is an industry professional with 25 years of uniform industry experience. Originally in the design field, Paul crossed the lines of sales and training while working for a textile CAD software company.

This led to the beginning of his consultancy career, a manufacturing business and culminated in his involvement in large volume industrial apparel industry.

Having designed, advised, trained and trouble-shot for the likes of Burberry, Pringle, Disney, Marks & Spencer, JordanF1, Williams and Alexandra PLC, he is currently supporting VF Imagewear in the marketing of their Bulwark Protective and Red Kap Industrial apparel brands.

His Independence and VF's attitude of providing the end user with as much knowledge as possible allows Paul to give open and qualified advice. Although a UK resident Paul travels extensively in the Middle East and North Africa assisting companies to make these educated choices in their FR apparel purchases.

Published: 10th May 2011 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Paul Seddon OBE