Safety & Health Article November, 2009

Key Factors in Selecting FR Clothing

Question – When in the initial phases of coming into compliance with NFPA 70E and starting to evaluate different FR garments, why wouldn’t you just go with the least expensive garment that meets the standard?

Answer – While garments can look very similar on the surface, they often contain different characteristics. This is especially true in flame-resistant garments, where key elements like fabric brand used and construction techniques can make a real impact on both performance and wear life over time. Additionally, your company may have specific “business-to-business” needs in order to service your program, from credit, to specific alterations required, to the need for non-stock sizes or ordering online.

When evaluating flame-resistant clothing, it is about finding products that offer the best balance of protection, comfort and value.

Protection Considerations: The safety of your employees is the most important factor, so the number one consideration is protection.

1. 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.

2. 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 be able to track every garment back to the original fabric roll.

3. Withstanding real world conditions. The fabric and garments should meet the minimum standard requirements as well as be constructed for durability and designed to withstand real world conditions. “Real world” conditions takes into consideration performance after many wash & wear cycles as well as differing wash formulas. For example, industrial laundry wash formulas that 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 consistently, or properly.

1. Wear tests. In recent years, there have been many new flame resistant fabrics entering 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 a wear test among various garments. Working with a garment manufacturer that supports wear tests can be important.

2. Sizing & cut. Another key factor in comfort is how the garments are sized and how they’re cut. Having a more generous fit and having features like 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?

3. Non-stock sizes. You’ll also likely need garments to fit every employee at your location regardless of size. Be sure the manufacturer you select provides a broad range of sizes and can provide timely turn around on non-standard sizes.

Value Considerations: Because flame resistant garments are more expensive than regular work wear, value is an important consideration. For FR, value is more than just the upfront 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 might really be higher than a higher quality garment.

1. Garment shrinkage. Certain types of flame resistant fabrics tend to have lower shrinkage. In particular, cotton based FR fabrics can vary in terms of shrinkage over time, and with 6% shrinkage you have moved down a complete size and will not fit that employee properly any longer.
2. Durable construction. Garments that are constructed for durability will also last longer. Construction features like 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.

There is a saying that you “get what you pay for” and flame-resistant garments are no exception. 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 have the resources to stand behind their product and provide the ongoing consultation and services that are often required to help you manage a corporate flame resistant program over time.