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By Joe Liberti, Protective Apparel Regional Director, Cintas Corporation

Although the electrical industry has gone great lengths to help protect workers, Cintas estimates that nearly 70 percent of companies do not have a documented electrical safety program for NFPA 70E® compliance. NFPA 70E is the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, first published in 1979 by the National Fire Protection Association. As a result, too many workers at industrial power systems, including engineers, technicians and electricians, still go about their work without the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed to help reduce the likelihood and severity of injury during an accident.

To help maximize employee safety and minimize liability for electrical workers, we’ve addressed the most common misconceptions about arc flash protection and the use of flame-resistant clothing.

  1. "I don’t need FR clothing. Never been in an accident." – Before there was a lot of education around safety practices, workers near energized parts wore regular clothing and accepted their jobs as dangerous—liable to injury or even death. Although that mentality has changed drastically in the wake of safety improvements, many exposed workers still believe that because they have never seen or experienced an arc flash, it won’t happen to them. But while arc flashes are relatively rare, according to statistics compiled by Chicago-based research firm Capshell, Inc., five to 10 U.S. workers are injured or killed daily, due to arc flash accidents.
  2. "If I buy a flame-resistant shirt or coverall, then I’m compliant." – This is false, as the first step for organizing a flame-resistant clothing program is to assess the workplace for the amount of electrical exposure workers will encounter on the job. Energy is grated in calories per centimeters squared (cal/cm2), and all flame-resistant fabrics are assigned an Arc Thermal Protection Value (ATPV), which measures the garment’s maximum capability for arc flash protection. If workers are exposed to 7 cal/cm2, it’s critical that their companies equip them with the appropriate ATPV for that hazard. Effective flame-resistant clothing programs involve four steps: assessing the workplace, selecting a fabric appropriate for the hazard, selecting a program (buy, lease or rent) and training workers in the proper care, laundering and maintenance of the garments.

    To help exposed workers ensure that their garments will perform in the event of an arc flash, ASTM F2757-09, the Standard Guide for Home Laundering Care and Maintenance of Flame, Thermal and Arc Resistant Clothing, lists out ways to properly home launder and maintain flame-resistant garments. For example, section 6.4.1 notes that “excessive wear or abrasion,” “evidence of open seams” and “alteration(s) to a garment that differs significantly from the original design” may all “diminish the effectiveness of arc resistant clothing.” Under the standard, garments deemed damaged or defective must be repaired with special FR threading or replaced.

    In addition, because an arc flash can engulf a worker 360-degrees, flame-resistant attire must cover all of an electrician’s skin—face, hands, feet, etc. It is not enough to simply have a flame-resistant pair of pants and shirt. There have been several documented case studies of workers wearing the proper shirt, pants, hardhat, and gloves at the time of their accidents, but failed to wear a $20 balaclava, a sock hood that covers the back of the head and neck area. In those instances, the employee suffered from severe second- and third-degree burns. Balaclavas are required every time workers are exposed to a Hazard Risk Category 2 (HRC 2) exposure.
  3. "Every time a flame-resistant garment is laundered, it becomes less flame-resistant." – Of most of the garments being sold today, the flame-resistant integrity of the garment will only be compromised if it is washed incorrectly or exceeds its usable wear life. According to ASTM F2757-09, flame-resistant garments should be washed according to the instructions on their care labels. This includes turning the garments inside out when laundering, not using fabric softeners or chlorine bleach and using specific water temperatures. To help ensure that garments are washed correctly, many companies turn to a uniform rental program for industrial laundering. Featuring the proper water temperatures, water softness and detergents, industrial laundering allows organizations to increase employee safety and compliance due to much greater likelihood of garment flame-resistant integrity.
  4. "All FR garments are the same." – This is false, as various fabric manufacturers use various technologies to make materials flame-resistant. Each manufacturer has expanded their product offerings to include woven fabrics, knit fabrics and fleeces, and each fabric and fabric type will have a different protection level for arc flash and flash fire exposures. Based on the amount of voltage that workers are exposed to, the appropriate apparel is selected to match the hazard so that garments won’t break open in the event of an arc flash.
  5. "FR garments are hot, rigid and uncomfortable." – Although this used to be true, advancements in apparel technology have enabled flame-resistant garments to be light, thin and breathable. Although companies want to protect their employees, they don’t want it to lead to additional problems, such as heat stress. Designed to be comfortable and functional, many flame-resistant garments wick away moisture and feel like standard fabrics.
  6. "FR clothing is expensive." – Although FR clothing may appear expensive, the cost of not wearing it is far greater. Victims of arc flashes who weren’t wearing the appropriate apparel at the time of their accident often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on medical bills and other life-changing events, such as divorce, depression or painkiller addiction. It is not uncommon for the total cost to exceed seven figures.

    In addition, many companies control the costs associated with purchasing flame-resistant clothing by renting daily wear, such as shirts and pants. Under a uniform rental program, the rental provider picks up soiled garments on a weekly basis to inspect and launder the uniforms. Any garments damaged from normal wear and tear are repaired or replaced. Items that aren’t worn every day can be purchased and cleaned as needed — typically a few times annually.
  7. "FR clothing that is 100% cotton is okay." – Unfortunately for a lot of companies, it’s considered acceptable for workers to wear 100 percent cotton or denim. Most of the industry standards simply dictate that employees must not wear apparel that contributes to injury. For example, polyester is considered unacceptable as it will melt onto a person’s skin in the event of an arc flash. However, although cotton doesn’t melt, it burns much hotter and is very difficult to extinguish, potentially leading to severe burn injuries.

Greater Peace of Mind

Although their presence is often taken for granted, employees exposed to energized parts have high-risk, dangerous jobs. In order to significantly reduce the likelihood and severity of injuries, it’s critical for companies, as well as the employees exposed, to ensure access to the proper flame-resistant clothing for the job. Then, equally, if not more important is understanding how to properly care for and maintain flame-resistant shirts, pants and other apparel so that the integrity of the garments is never compromised. Ultimately, with the right equipment and training, electrical professionals and their companies can ensure greater protection and peace of mind in the event that an accident should occur.

Click here for more information about Flame Resistant Clothing and Personal Protective Equipment from Cintas.

Joe Liberti is a Protective Apparel Regional Director for Cintas Corporation, the world’s largest industrial laundry provider and North America’s largest professional uniform provider.