How Fire Retardants Work and Their Importance in Workplace Safety

Posted July 24, 2019

The saying goes that if you play with fire, you’ll get burned. But how much more at risk would you be if working with fire, smoke, ash, and fumes was a part of your livelihood? Without your own set of personal protective equipment (PPEs), you’d be courting danger as you fulfilled your everyday tasks. 

Luckily, there is a whole class of PPEs dedicated to skilled labourers whose work involves fire hazards. This class of garments is collectively known as fire retardants, manufactured to do the following: (1) increase the threshold that is necessary to start a fire, therefore shielding workers from being on the verge of lethal flames; (2) burn out slowly or self-extinguish as to limit the spread of fire on the human body, and; (3) reduce the build-up of heat on the wearer and prevent rapid fire development on the work site.

Here’s a feature on how fire retardants work, how the different fire-retardants are classified, and how to optimise fire retardant safety workwear clothes such as jackets, shirts, and boiler suits for full protection in your workplace. 

When is a Material Deemed Fire-Retardant?

By definition, fire-retardant fabrics are textiles that are more resistant to flame than their ordinary counterparts. They acquire this quality either from chemical treatment or from being woven out of fireproof materials. Whichever the case, fire retardant clothing serves to mitigate fire hazards from surrounding organic materials containing traces of carbon. Putting it simply, if these garments catch fire, there is less risk of it spreading elsewhere. 

Before a PPE item can purport to be fire-retardant, it must undergo a series of flame resistant tests. Such tests measure the item’s ability to resist ignition and propagate combustion at its size. However, the tests cannot predict something as tricky as the burning characteristics of full-scale hazards.

A PPE item to be classified as fire-retardant must pass a rigorous standard such as that of NZS/AS 1530.2: 1993, which details fire tests to be conducted for flammability of materials. Only then is the item deemed safe for use in public places.  

Types of Fire-Retardant Fabrics

There are three types of fire-retardant fabric used in today’s industrial-level PPEs. Their differences are as follows:  

  1. Inherent flame resistant (IFR) fabrics. These are fabrics woven using yarn that has been scientifically modified to reduce flammability. Since these fibres constitute the entire garment, the flame-resistant quality is guaranteed to last until the end of the garment’s service life. Polyester falls under the category of IFRs, as it does not flare up when subjected to testing.
  2. Flame retardant (FR) fabrics. The fire-retardant quality on this type of fabric comes from a topical treatment applied to its reverse layer. However, the protective coat will wear off over time. Most fabrics classified as FR are also not suitable for washing.
  3. Durable flame retardant (DFR) fabrics. An upgrade from the FR class of fabric listed above, these fabrics are treated with even stronger chemical compounds in a dye bath. Their fire-resistant coat will not wash out. 

Tips on Ensuring Maximum Workplace Safety when Wearing Fire Retardant Clothes 

As with other PPEs, quality matters when purchasing fire retardant safety workwear. You will want to get items from a reputable brand, of hardy material, and of a good size fit to your body. But be warned: a fire retardant’s defensive capacities only extend as far as you let them. Flame-resistant clothing may offer life-saving protection against a variety of workplace hazards, such as flash fires and molten metal spatter, but only if it is worn correctly. If worn improperly or in incomplete layers, your efforts to shield yourself from harm may be for naught.  Arc rated workwear is required for work in the electrical industry.   

Maximise the protective value of your fire retardant workwear by covering your body in layers of it. Make sure to wear fire-retardant inner wear in high-hazard situations; choose the certified FR item over a T-shirt, even if the latter is made of polyester. 

Complement your inner wear with an FR outer layer, even if it’s tempting to default to a warm but non-FR coat in the colder months. Don’t leave any parts of your body exposed to the flame either—when you are wearing fire retardant safety workwear, keep the sleeves down and all buttons and zippers closed up over you. Do not tuck in the shirt-tail of a fire-retardant long-sleeved shirt lest you get hit by an ember in your groin area. 

Equipping yourself with the right fire retardant safety workwear—and using such garments properly—is the key to skirting grievous harm in your workplace. Don’t risk your livelihood going up in smoke—stoke no fire but that of your ambition as a professional!

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