FR/AR Clothing Considerations During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In 29 CFR 1910.132, OSHA clearly states that personal protective equipment and appropriate training are required for individuals working in utilities, electrical petroleum, oil and gas exploration, and other industries where there is a danger of being injured by arc flash or flash fire. What’s not so clear to safety professionals is how things have changed with regard to flame-resistant (FR) and arc-rated (AR) clothing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the information that has been disseminated over the past year or so is incomplete, misleading or just flat-out wrong.
So, what do you need to know and what questions should you be asking your FR/AR clothing and other PPE providers? That’s what we intend to help you with in this article, and please feel free to reach out to us if you have other questions or concerns that aren’t addressed here.
One of the key issues with COVID-19 is that it is so novel that humans haven’t yet acquired immunity. Couple that with its rapid spread and a relatively high mortality rate, and the stage was set for a pandemic. The implications for FR/AR clothing and related PPE have been significant, and some are likely to remain with us for a year or two, even if herd immunity has been achieved.
In light of what’s been discovered about the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that masks should be worn in certain situations and environments to control the spread of the virus. There are plenty of styles of FR/AR masks, gaiters and balaclavas available, but because many of them are reusable, they must be cleaned and disinfected between uses. The preferred method is home laundering, but some people will use UV light (sunlight), which can be effective if each side of the mask is exposed to the light for more than 15 minutes. Please note that this method is not effective through windows, windshields and the like; direct outdoor exposure to UV light is required.
So, cloth face coverings have become standard operating procedure for now. But in hazardous environments where a short-duration thermal event could occur, these face coverings must share FR/AR properties similar to those found in your shirts and pants or coveralls. They must be made from fabrics that self-extinguish and won’t melt or drip. Your mask will more than likely have an arc rating, but this only demonstrates that the fabric will meet the previous criteria of self-extinguishing. These masks are not intended to be thermal protection for the face; they are meant to provide protection from airborne droplets that could spread COVID-19 without posing a flammability hazard to the wearer. FR/AR masks can now meet NFPA 2112 and ASTM F1506.
Disinfecting FR/AR Clothing
Fomite transmission is the term for infection due to touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes. Early in the pandemic, fomite transmission was thought to be a major factor in the spread of COVID-19, but experts now agree that while fomite transmission does occur, it likely represents less than 10% of all transmissions. However, there are still several areas of concern relative to this topic, including disinfection of standard FR/AR garments; disinfection of other, non-fabric PPE; disinfection of work surfaces and tools that may impact PPE; and sharing PPE.
A combination of soap or detergent and water is highly effective at disinfecting any machine-washable garment – even more so than using chemical sanitizers. Do not use bleach, alcohol or other chemicals when disinfecting; doing so could damage the clothing. Specifically, use of liquid chlorine bleach is prohibited on all FR/AR clothing, and alcohol is flammable.
The CDC recommends that anyone who handles FR/AR clothing wear disposable gloves if there is a concern that the clothing was exposed to the coronavirus. If disposable gloves are not available, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling the clothing. If soap and water are not readily available to wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Additionally:
- Do not shake the dirty clothing.
- Wash the clothing with a commercially available home laundry detergent according to the instructions on the clothing’s care label.
- Use the hottest laundering setting allowed by the garment label. Rinse the clothing a second time to help remove any residual materials that may not have been removed during the first rinse.
Disinfecting Other PPE
You should also know and use disinfection techniques for PPE beyond FR/AR clothing.
Rubber voltage-rated gloves should be gently washed with soap and water and air-dried. Be aware that some manufacturers allow the use of alcohol during the cleaning process, but this can dry out the rubber and cause cracking, rendering the shock protection ineffective.
Leather gloves should be handwashed with soap and water, rinsed well and air-dried. Do not put leather gloves in a washing machine or dryer.
Plastic face shields can be wiped down with alcohol, but ensure the surface remains wet for at least 30 seconds and that the shield is dry before wearing it.
Arc flash suits may be machine-washed and dried if the manufacturer’s instructions allow, but the hoods must be disassembled to remove all hard-plastic parts and face shields.
If you don’t want to wash PPE and have time to spare, simply storing the items for 48 hours (if fabric) or a week or more (if hard PPE) will allow enough time for the virus to be inactivated.
Most people use a diluted bleach solution or isopropyl alcohol to disinfect tools, trucks, shared workspaces and the like. This can impact your PPE, so you should never apply these solutions while wearing FR/AR clothing. As noted earlier, bleach is prohibited for use with FR/AR clothing and alcohol is flammable. There is good news here, however. The dried residue from bleach, often seen as a white powder, is not still bleach and will not damage clothing. Also, with any quality FR/AR clothing in common use in the U.S. today, a single accidental bleach exposure while disinfecting is extremely unlikely to damage a garment’s protective properties.
Stop Sharing PPE
Sharing PPE has never been a best practice and was always a hygiene risk in the past, but the pandemic has put this practice under a whole new level of scrutiny. Tools are relatively quick and easy to disinfect if shared among users, but face shields, arc flash suits and especially arc flash hoods are not. We urge you to strongly reconsider any policy that requires sharing of any of these items. They are breathed on directly by users, have hard surfaces on which the virus can remain viable and are much less likely to be cleaned regularly.
Supply Chain Challenges
The vaccines have given us hope that we will begin to emerge from the pandemic perhaps as early as this fall. As close as that may seem and as comforting as the return to a sense of normalcy may be, economic and supply chain disruptions will last much longer. As such, there are important questions you should ask your FR/AR clothing and other PPE suppliers regarding ongoing challenges, including the following.
Is your supplier using chemical sanitizers to keep their warehouse safe? If so, do they know what the sanitizer is and whether it’s safe for use around FR/AR clothing? One thing we do know is that garments shipped by mail are mostly safe because the virus cannot remain infectious on porous surfaces like fabric for more than 24 hours, and shipping time typically exceeds that.
With global supply chains being challenged, how reliable is your supplier’s inventory? Do they have the necessary inventory levels and the cash flow to maintain those levels? If they offer distributed goods, where are they in the pecking order when items run low or run out? The largest distributors will have priority when supply is challenged.
Has your supplier reduced staff to cope with reduced revenue, and if so, what impact will that have on the services you need? Are corners being cut in ways that could affect your ability to get the PPE, support or information you need in a timely fashion?
The pandemic and related market fluctuations have severely impacted most FR/AR clothing suppliers. Does your supplier still have the cash flow and capital necessary to remain viable? Do they have access to a variety of manufacturers, abundant warehousing and multiple shipping options to protect you from a COVID-related shutdown? What would happen if access to your supplier were impacted? Do you have a backup plan?
COVID-19 has reordered the world, and the FR/AR clothing market is no exception. In addition to the individual health risks inherent to a pandemic, there are significant practical risks as well, including your company’s ability to get what you need when you need it so your employees can do their jobs safely. We encourage you to invest the time needed to ensure that your policies and supply chain will continue to help you overcome the challenges you face.
About the Authors: Derek Sang has worked in the flame-resistant clothing industry for over 25 years in a variety of roles. In his current position as the technical training manager for Bulwark Protection (www.bulwark.com), Sang has developed more than 40 hours of training curriculum for Bulwark Institute covering all aspects of FR/AR clothing. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Margolin is the vice president of technical for Tyndale (https://tyndaleusa.com). Prior to joining the company in 2016, he was a firefighter for six years, then spent 10 years at DuPont before serving for 16 years as Westex’s international technical director. Margolin is currently chair of the ASTM F1959 arc rating standard as well as laundering standards F1449 and F2757. Reach him at email@example.com.