The FR Tech Keeping Workers Safe & Comfortable

This article was written for the 2023 December edition of the HSME magazine. Check their website here to see when it’s live.

If you ask somebody on the street to name a job role which requires flame-retardant/resistant (FR) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) there’s a good chance they will say a firefighter, which isn’t surprising as the dangers present in the profession are obvious; nobody wants to be burned. While firefighters certainly do need PPE, there is a diverse and extensive range of professionals exposed to fire hazards who need FR PPE suitable to their needs, including oil-rig workers, electricians, welders, mechanics, and most industrial workers handling volatiles or combustibles.

The FR PPE industry has developed into a multi-billion-dollar global market at the cutting edge of fabric and fibre technologies, producing various materials and innovations which keep professionals safe with a growing focus on comfort. Change is coming to this dynamic and life-saving sector of PPE, and the Professional Clothing Industry Association Worldwide (PCIAW®) is proud to share with HSME the developments in FR from our place the heart of the professional clothing. From the annual Summit, Exhibition & Awards to the webinars and research papers we publish, PCIAW® honours its commitment to advance the interests of professional clothing by following developments in all sectors of PPE and uniform, including FR fabrics and its adjacent industries. There are few industries which can claim direct responsibility for saving lives, which is why PCIAW® is excited to share how FR is growing the knowledge of our industry to save more lives while taking care of the planet and frontline personnel.

Flame Resistant Fibres

To start at the beginning of the supply chain with FR fibres, this product type can be split into two main categories, consisting of either inherent flame-resistant polymer filaments or fibres treated with a flame-retardant chemical finish. These FR fibres are then spun into yarns which are knitted or woven into fabrics, often blended with other fibres in the weave for durability and comfort on textiles designed for us as next-to-skin, liners, inter-liners and outer fabrics or other properties such as sustainable sourcing or reflective luminescence.

An example of an innovative inherent FR fibre is Protal® by Waxman, a protective solution developed specifically for OEKO-TEX Class 1 and REACH-compliant PPE. The modacrylic fibre contains tiny pockets of non-flammable gas which are released as the fibre charrs under heat, preventing the garment from catching fire and giving the wearer time to react. Protal® is designed to be both lightweight and durable for next-to-skin textiles, liners, inter-liners and outer fabrics and can withstand industrial laundry processes without loss of performance, which can be an issue for chemically treated FR solutions.

Helping the FR PPE market to blend comfort with protection, Lenzing™ FR’s cellulosic fibres are derived from renewable forestry and offer inherent FR protection via production processes based on Lenzing™’s Modal Technology. Lenzing™ FR fibres achieve dimensional stability to create yarns with high tensile strength that are soft on the skin and provide sufficient thermal protection, enough to meet the EN 469 standard for protective clothing for firefighters. The cellulosic fibres can also help increase the breathability of FR textiles, performing well in Thermal Evaporative Resistance (RET) tests. Breathable textiles are key to combatting fatigue and heat stress, which has been a significant contributor to PPE-related health complications.

Teijin ARAMID is also innovating in the field, offering Meta-Aramid and Para-Aramid FR fibre solutions with the goal of eventually offering circular recyclability. Meta-Aramids are a softer, more flexible fibre designed for protective clothing. Meta-Aramids are renowned for high abrasion resistance and heat resistance up to 250°C in the case of Teijinconex®, whilst Para-Aramids are noted for a tensile strength up to 7 times stronger than steel. Teijin offers Twaron® and Technora® Para-Aramids, providing heat resistance up to 190°C and 210°C respectively.

Aramid fibres help protect people in their everyday roles, but Teijin is looking to expand this protection to the global scale by integrating its products into the circular economy. Currently able to recycle its fibres into staple fibres, Teijin is looking to create a system for recycling its fibres into tow by 2027, with the ultimate goal of chemically recycling its fibres for use in new-life products by 2030.

The extensive development surrounding FR fibres being pursued by companies like Teijin, Lenzing and Waxman is evidence of an industry pushing the boundaries of material science for the benefit of the wearer’s protection and comfort, and there’s no sign that fibre manufacturers believe they can’t improve their products in the future with a focus on the environment.

Fire Retardant Chemical Treatments

If a FR fabric isn’t made from FR fibres, it will be treated with a chemical solution that inhibits the survivability and spread of fire. Treated fabrics have a significant advantage in that they can be made with almost any blend of fibres, allowing for a greater diversity of fabric properties. Another advantage is that FR treatment is sometimes cheaper than using inherent FR fibres due to the less industrially complex process of impregnating conventional fabric with a chemistry solution rather than working on the more granular fibre level.

Some notable examples of cutting-edge FR-treated fabrics come from Carrington Textiles, including Flamestat, Flameban and Flameshield ranges. The majority of these fabrics are made with a chemical treatment, applied to a base fabric made with cotton, a poly-cotton blend, or other technical fibres which enhance comfort. Carrington Textiles’ facilities are also environmentally responsible, recycling wasted water, chemicals and heat generated in the industrial process, minimising their effect on the environment. Extensive testing and product development processes ensure that their treated fabrics are just as reliable and effective as inherent FR fibres, making them a trusted name in the FR market.

Proban® is another innovator in FR chemical treatments, using a monomer-solvent solution to saturate cotton fibres with Proban® which develops into a FR polymer within the fibres of the garment. This gives the fabric feel properties similar to the cotton fabric while using the protective elements of a fire-resistant polymer.

Dangers of PFAS and prolonged FR PPE exposure

An element of FR PPE which has recently gained notoriety is the extensive use of PFAS. Per/poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals are added to FR PPE due to their oil and water-repellent features, used to prevent oils from sticking to PPE which would eventually burn through to the wearer. Recently, however, the chemical has been confirmed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be a carcinogen, being dubbed “the forever chemical” due to its long lifespan in the environment and the permanent damage it does to the environment and waterways.

One of the professions most impacted by the sustained use of PFAS has been firefighters, who have been exposed to garments with PFAS every day in their place of work. While PFAS has been hard to replace due to its widespread use and specific properties for both water and oil repellence, there are companies which are working to develop and deploy replacement chemistry which is more sustainable, healthy and meets the needs of FR PPE.

Milliken & Company, a major supplier of FR PPE through subsidiaries such as Westex®: A Milliken Brand, was at the forefront of the movement against PFAS. The company committed to eliminating PFAS from its entire portfolio by the end of 2022, embarking on a research and development project which culminated in new chemistry solutions which met the goals of durable water repellence (DWR), soil repellence, and oil repellence. Partnering with bluesign® to create accredited and safe alternatives to using PFAS, Milliken has sent a clear message to the FR industry: there are better ways to protect users that don’t involve toxic forever chemicals.

Westex® isn’t the only FR manufacturer to eliminate PFAS, as many others have been developing their own solutions. Inspired by the reports of PFAS’ dangers, Daletec has been transitioning its range of FR materials in a more sustainable direction, successfully introducing non-PCF chemistry in their FR fabric chemistry. Water repellence and chemical splash protection are key elements of protective clothing, and through extensive research, Daletec’s product development engineers have created fabrics which are EN 13034 chemical splash compliant without PFC substances. Daletec’s solutions provide vital acid protection and water repellence without impairing resistance to flames, welding protection, and antistatic or electric arc protection.

Protecting frontline workers from dangerous conditions

There are other technological innovations helping to keep FR users safe, particularly in the decontamination service industry. Conventional laundering with hot water and detergents has been shown to be ineffective at removing contaminants by journals such as Textiles, with liquid carbon dioxide (LCO2) providing a more effective solution. LCO2 has a lower viscosity than water, allowing it to penetrate deeper into the fibres of a garment to dislodge contaminants and oils without damaging or compromising the fabric. Additionally, LCO2 neutralises bacteria and viruses making it an effective sterilisation method, and the process is more environmentally friendly due to the elimination of wastewater and extension of garment lifespans in comparison to conventional washing solutions.

While CO2 decontamination has been used on machinery for decades, it’s only within the past 5 years the technology has been refined to the degree it can be used on garments. Established PPE suppliers and service providers such as Hunter Apparel Solutions have adopted the technology rapidly, however, rolling out LCO2 decontamination facilities in Northern Ireland. One of the largest providers of LCO2 decontamination is DECONTEX, starting in 2020 and growing to an international scale in just 3 years. With facilities across 9 countries in Europe, DECONTEX uses LCO2 and their patented CHEMCOO detergent to provide a full garment decontamination, repair and repellence reimpregnation service to many fire brigades in the continent, able to process and return garments within 10 days of sending. LCO2 is better for the environment, garment lifespan, and wearer safety, making it one of the most exciting developments in the world of FR PPE.

It would be remiss not to mention the additional protections offered in modern membranes and moisture barriers. GORE-TEX CROSSTECH® PYRAD® stretch fabric offers garment designers a breathable, waterproof and lightweight FR fabric with additional stretch, pathogen, and chemical barriers providing the ultimate protection. A household name, GORE-TEX is still developing and improving its offerings in the FR market and bringing its best in protection and comfort for its wearers. StedAIR® CLEAR from Stedfast is another middle-layer protecting FR wearers, using advanced non-fluorinated technologies on an OEKO-TEX® 100 base to create a protective membrane which is flame resistant, water resistant, viral resistant and UV resistant, per NPFA 1971-2018 requirements. Membranes and moisture barriers are an area of key importance to FR PPE, preventing dangerous chemicals and carcinogens from penetrating a garment, so it’s important to stay updated on the latest advancements in keeping wearers safe from threats to their health.

Changing Trends in FR PPE for Comfort

One of the emerging developments in FR PPE is a changing attitude toward the level of protection necessary in working roles. According to studies done by numerous international firefighter associations 46% of firefighter deaths are related to heart stress from exhaustion and repetitive heat stress, which are mainly the results of working against a garment’s reduced mobility. Across Europe and North America, employers have been exploring more balanced PPE solutions which match the level of protection to its intended use, creating a space market for lower-grade FR gear with increased breathability and comfort.

Fire suits are also being redesigned to be lighter overall, such as Eagle FR’s recently released Synergy 469 suit. The Synergy 469 system utilises the latest in lightweight FR fabrics and construction techniques to create a lighter FR PPE system which places less stress on the body while offering fully compliant protection. The demand for lighter and more use-appropriate garments is strong within firefighting communities, and suppliers over the past 12 months have made strides to meet this need.

Following the same vein, FR PPE users have been demanding more comfortable protective undergarments which cause less skin irritation. On this front, the Norwegian knitwear company Devold® has focused specifically on increasing the comfort and utility of undergarments in the Devold® SAFE range. Using a blend of Lenzing FR, Nega-Stat and Merino wool, Devold® has developed comfortable thermal undergarments with certifications proving resistance to arc flash burns, heat & flame, and electrostatic hazards. As these demands materialise in the design process industry-wide, it’s certain more manufacturers will be factoring in comfort as a key element of FR PPE design.

Key developments in the FR industry

The fabrics which go into FR PPE are quite literally the difference between life and death for many workers, protecting the wearer from the dangers surrounding them. The developments outlined in this article are reflective of a broad industry commitment to ensuring professionals can work safely without compromising on their comfort or sustainability.

A growing array of FR fabrics and fibres illustrates this commitment vividly, each company bringing something unique and revolutionary to the table. From inherent long-lasting flame-resistant polymers like Protal® to the sustainably sourced Lenzing™ FR and Teijin ARAMID’s plans to recycle their fibres, innovation is meeting industry demands for effective solutions that align with the manufacturers’ responsibility to create long-lasting garments that work as part of the value chain. Chemical treatments, such as those offered by companies like Carrington Textiles and Proban®, also offer a level of cost-effective innovation without compromising safety.

The dark stain of PFAS still lingers in the FR market, but manufacturers like Westex® and Daletec are spending vital efforts to produce safer alternatives, and we can expect to see a flourishing shift towards cleaner repellence treatments in the near future. The development of effective protective membranes and decontamination services using LCO2 has also helped restore hope to many FR PPE users, as firefighters and workers can shake off the spectre of carcinogenic chemicals and place their trust in safer, greener, and more garment-friendly approaches to constructing and laundering their equipment.

Parallel to this, the demands for FR gear from firefighters have evolved, and garment manufacturers are now acknowledging the toll restrictive suits can have on their wearers. There is a space emerging for lighter, more breathable fabrics which align with protection and comfort expectations from those within the fire service. For a majority of situations heavy-duty equipment might be actively harming our workers, so it’s important we grow the trend of designing and purchasing gear with the function and wearer in mind.

The landscape of FR technology is ever-changing, as the industry seeks to use the latest technologies to balance safety, product sustainability, and wearer comfort. There will never be a PPE panacea which balances all of these factors perfectly, but development and innovative designs in FR textiles are pushing us ever closer to the ultimate goals of sustainable, comfortable and highly functional FR garments. The FR industry has come a long way in the past 10 years, and there’s a promising future emerging where professionals will be able to enter hazardous environments and protect others without ever compromising their own health and safety.

PCIAW Uniform Networks Buyer, Trusted member