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FR/AR Apparel Use: Are Your Workers Properly Trained?

Many workers in the utilities space bravely put their personal safety at risk every day on the job. Facing potential hazards such as arc flashes, flash fires and unpredictable elements of nature, these workers’ personal protective equipment – particularly their garments – is their last line of defense. However, proper apparel use can sometimes be overlooked or deprioritized, putting workers at greater risk of injury.

Whether you’re responsible for a few employees or 1,000, getting your team properly trained in the appropriate use of flame-resistant and arc-rated (FR/AR) apparel helps to ensure that they will return home safely at the end of every shift. In the remainder of this article, we’ll explore five topics to integrate into your team’s apparel training so that your workforce is knowledgeable and prepared.

1. Workplace Hazard Assessments
It is critical to assess job-site hazards and their potential severity to determine what kind of garments are needed. Among the many common hazards facing utility workers are thermal hazards, chemical exposures and outdoor environmental hazards.

Thermal Hazards
Arc flashes typically occur in environments where energized electrical equipment is present and there is both a gap between conductors and a breakdown in the insulation. Workers who are responsible for opening electrical enclosures or working on live equipment are at risk of experiencing an arc flash. Gas service utility workers may be exposed to flash-fire risks during certain tasks. A risk assessment for thermal hazards for the tasks to be performed should be completed by qualified safety personnel.

Chemical Exposures
Chemicals such as insulating oils may be on-site and pose potential hazards. Workers who are responsible for handling such chemicals are at risk for exposure to leaks and spills. If a risk of intermittent chemical exposure exists, use of coated FR disposable coveralls worn over proper FR/AR clothing may be appropriate. If FR/AR garments become heavily soiled with flammable contaminants, they must be replaced with clean garments and laundered properly to remove contaminants.

Outdoor Environmental Hazards
Poor visibility conditions due to time of day or weather may require workers to don high-visibility FR/AR apparel. To determine the proper apparel for the conditions, heat and cold stress hazards must be assessed. In addition, be sure to confirm that the proper insect repellent best practices are being used by your team. Some repellents are flammable and should not be applied to FR/AR clothing.

2. Understand the Standards
From NFPA to ANSI, the world of standards can begin to look like alphabet soup. Consider supplying trainees with a glossary of terms and breaking down the specific garment-related standards and regulations designed to protect them from work-related hazards. Doing so will help to make it easier for trainees to learn about and truly understand the standards that apply to them and their FR/AR garments.

The following are some of the most common apparel-related standards utilities workers should know.

For electric utility workers, OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(l)(8)(v) states that the “employer shall ensure that each employee exposed to hazards from electric arcs wears protective clothing and other protective equipment with an arc rating greater than or equal to the heat energy estimated under paragraph (l)(8)(ii) of this section whenever that estimate exceeds 2.0 cal/cm2.”  All FR/AR garments should meet ASTM F1506 requirements and list the arc rating in cal/cm2 on a label on each garment. The wearer must make sure the AR garment or layered FR/AR clothing ensemble has an arc rating (or a layered arc rating) greater than the potential estimated incident energy exposure based on the arc flash hazard assessment.

Utility gas service personnel at risk of flash-fire exposure should be aware that the best protection is provided by FR clothing that meets the certification requirements of NFPA 2112. An NFPA 2112 label or tag in the FR garment indicates that it has been third-party certified to meet the NFPA 2112 requirements, providing both validated protection and peace of mind.

For all utility workers working in poor-visibility outdoor conditions, ANSI 107-compliant labeled garments/vests meet high-visibility performance requirements. Be aware that the high-visibility garments worn must also have appropriate FR/AR garment labels as indicated above.

3. Know What You’re Wearing
If the goal is greater adoption of and personal pride in safety apparel, workers should know what’s protecting their bodies. During onboarding, spend ample time reviewing the required PPE for trainees’ jobs. Consider in-person wear trials to make sure employees feel comfortable in the apparel. Trainers should also spend time walking through the construction of the materials and the types of fabric used in the garments so that employees have a deeper knowledge and understanding of their last line of defense.

If you’re responsible for sourcing PPE, a daily-wear FR/AR program may be a worthwhile investment for your team. This takes away one barrier to proper apparel use: relying on busy workers to take time out of their workday to change their clothes for a new task. While daily-wear programs are commonplace for electric utility workers, that is not necessarily the case for gas utility workers, so again, it is strongly recommended to consider a daily-wear program over a task-based clothing program.

4. Review the Basics
In a perfect world, everyone would wear their PPE properly every day with no issues. But as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world. One simple safety solution is to review the basics on a regular basis. Consider including signage on the job or providing a cheat sheet in work vehicles that asks workers these questions:

  • Are your garments fully buttoned?
  • Are your garments tucked in as necessary?
  • Are there any rips or holes in your garments?
  • Does every garment layer you’re wearing meet the appropriate FR/AR requirements?

5. Develop and Encourage a Culture of Safety
Safety leaders know it takes vigilance and consistency to keep safety top of mind. Employers bear the lion’s share of risk in most electrical hazard situations. They are responsible for not just creating a safe environment but also communicating with and properly training workers regarding the hazards they could face on the job.

Regular and consistent communication can play a major role in the proper use of PPE. NFPA 70E states that employers are responsible for flagging any hazards that might not be recognizable to employees and ensuring they’re instructed on how to mitigate that risk. Communication between employers and employees is key, so when performing job briefings, a proper PPE reminder should be on the agenda.

Training utility employees in the proper use of FR/AR apparel is a regulatory necessity, but beyond that, it’s a crucial step in ensuring the safety and well-being of the workforce. Successful, comprehensive training programs are designed to educate workers on understanding FR/AR apparel, assessing workplace risks, learning about the apparel material and basic use, and fostering a safety culture. As utility companies invest in the training and development of their employees, they contribute to both individual safety and the overall success and resilience of the industry. In closing, continuous improvement in safety practices should not simply be a goal; it’s a responsibility that every utility organization must embrace to protect its most valuable asset – its people.

About the Author: Scott Francis serves as a technical manager for Westex: A Milliken Brand. He earned a master’s degree in inorganic chemistry and has been involved with the safety industry since 1991, gaining extensive experience in protective apparel fabrics and programs. Reach him at