Fire is, perhaps, the most frightening and dangerous of the elements - but for millions of people across the globe, it is also an unavoidable part of their daily work.
Of course, these people must be protected. But for many companies that are thinking of investing in flame retardant (FR) clothing, the options, variables and other details may be overwhelming and difficult to comprehend.
So where to begin?
Identifying the hazards
Bill Marrs is the UK and Ireland sales manager for TenCate Protect, the protective fabrics wing of 300-year-old global fabric manufacturing company TenCate. From its position in the middle of the supply chain, TenCate has a privileged view of the wider industry.
Bill told director-e: "The end user should begin by thinking about what hazards their employees will come into contact with, and the best way to do this is to perform a risk assessment.
"A lot of larger companies have in-house health and safety departments or officers who could perform this function, but for smaller companies, there are specialist groups that can deal with the assessment process."
However, the answer to the risk assessment question is not as simple as 'fire'. For example, employees must ask what kind of fire danger their workers will encounter.
The most obvious one is contact heat; direct contact with either a flame or a hot object that could cause non-FR clothing to catch fire. This needn't be from large, open fires, either; it could come from Bunsen burners, for example, or gas hobs on stoves.
Then there's the risk of radiant heat, in which waves of searing heat from fire or hot objects can cause not just exhaustion and discomfort, but also physical burns on flesh and non-FR clothing.
Then there's the risk of electricity arcing from machinery and causing flashes of temperature up to 10,000 degrees centigrade - enough to ignite most clothing. Perhaps even more frightening is the risk of being splashed with hot metal, or caught up in flash fires caused by sudden discharges of built-up static electricity.
All of these things must be considered when looking into FR clothing. But the complications don't end there.
Detailing the danger
The next step is to work out the details of the danger. Sure, there may be a danger of direct contact - but for how long, and at what temperature? These things can play an important part in selecting the right solution.
Trevor Inglis is the UK business manager for Kermel, a French company whose Kermel FR fibre was originally designed for French tank crews but has since found great success in the fire fighting, police, military and industrial sectors.
He explained: "Much of the time the fibre that is used depends on what the end user needs from the end fabric, and that in turn is driven by the prevailing performance standards for the industry.
"One type of Kermel fibre is designed for short-term exposure against high temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees centigrade.
"Short-term literally means seconds; for example, garments for firefighters are tested by placing them on a mannequin and exposing them to a direct flame of 1,000 degrees centigrade for up to eight seconds.
"That doesn't sound like long, but it gives the wearer enough time to get away from the source of the heat or have his colleagues pull him to safety." (To contact Kermel, call Trevor Inglis on +44 (0) 1282 441833 or e-mail email@example.com)
That's an extreme example, but it proves the point - what is bare minimum protection for one person may be overly protective for another. So once you know what your employees need protection from, where do you go next?
Working out the norms
Alex Gstettner is the marketing and business development manager for Lenzing FR, the flame retardant fibre made by the world-famous Lenzing Group, a 114-year-old organisation that creates textiles, paper, nonwovens and plastics among other products.
He said: "The European norms are a very good way to work out what you need, and they can be purchased online. The norms are set by the European Committee for Standardisation and specify how products must work.
"The norms give the required performance levels for protective workwear, whether it is for molten metal splashes, direct fire or other dangers, and you can get a very good idea of what you need to look for to protect against specific risks." (To contact Lenzing FR, call Alex Gstettner on +43 7672 701 3290 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
The European norms are categorised by their EN numbers, with each number denoting a different set of guidelines. For example, EN 531 concentrates on protective clothing for workers exposed to heat, while EN 470 is focuses on protective clothing for use in welding.
Some norms have different sections with different minimum standards depending on the kind of environment that the garments will be used in. Other useful industry standards are EN 471 (high-visibility clothing), EN 1149 (anti-electrostatic clothing) and EN 13034 (chemical resistance).
Knowing which norms apply to your employees makes it far easier for the fibre, fabric and garment companies to work out what will best suit your needs.
But there are yet more factors that should be worked out early on so that the finished garment is fit for purpose.
For example, workers operating around fire regularly will need their workwear to provide not only good protection from radiant heat, but excellent moisture transportation and breathability so that they remain comfortable at all times.
Sometimes it's as simple as working a fibre with the desired properties into the fabric, but sometimes that isn't an option since it would adversely affect the FR properties of the clothing. Thankfully, there is a solution.
Gavin Shepherd is sales director of Dale Intertec, a specialist manufacturer of predominantly technical knitted textiles that combines the world's top protective fibres with finishes and treatments to make fabrics capable of withstanding the most extreme conditions, including fire.
He said: "The outer fabric layer offers the primary protection and is typically manufactured using high performance woven fabrics, but considerations should be given to other elements of the garment. For example, the wearer may require moisture management for improved comfort next to the skin.
"In this case, a second or inner layer, such as flame retardant underwear, can be used. Knitted fabrics tend to be used for underwear and can be engineered to combine a number of different elements to improve wearer comfort.
"The combination of the desired fibres with particular fabric constructions gives the wearer high comfort in a fabric that still meets the specific performance requirements of the application.
"Additionally, when combined with the outer shell, the layers work with each other and give improved overall performance to the system, without compromising wearer comfort” (To contact Dale Intertec, call the Gavin Shepherd on +44 (0) 1535 633677 or e-mail email@example.com)
Another solution is to use a dropliner. This is a membrane placed beneath the outer fabric of a garment, giving the garment additional properties without affecting the effectiveness of its outer layer.
One company that makes both dropliners and outerwear is IQ Textiles. Formed in 2004 from three separate companies, the organisation now manufactures a variety of technical fabrics and is the European distributor for the Carbon X FR fibre.
Neil Davey, sales director of IQ Textiles, said: "Sometimes products have a great performance on the outside, but are either not comfortable to wear next to the skin or aren't waterproof.
"By adding a dropliner, the outer layer maintains its high FR performance, but the garment as a whole is given a new dimension."
So once you have all of this planned and ready to go, all that’s left is to decide which FR fibre will best suit your purposes. Of course, there are plenty of them - so we've decided to help you out by showing you some of the fibres on offer.
The options: Lenzing FR, Kermel, Carbon X and Nomex
Lenzing FR, made by the Lenzing company, is a ten-year-old fibre that was developed especially for Austrian firefighters. Alex Gstettner explained how it works: "The fibres are made from pulped beechwood, with a special flame retardant pigment that is added during the production process. This means that the FR properties last for as long as the fibre does.
"The pigment contains no halogens and no brominates so it is non-toxic and will not release fumes when it comes into contact with flames. It also contains no antimontrioxide. It can be used for any application depending on what fibres it is mixed with."
Lenzing FR has proved extremely popular in many industries, including fire fighting and heavy industry, and is highly adaptable, with variations including high-visibility fibre mixes and an aluminised version for metal splash.
Another popular high-end material is Kermel, which uses inherently non-flammable meta-aramid fibres that are strong, flame resistant and do not pill. It is used in public order suits for police officers, amongst other garments, and the company is careful to make sure that its fibres are used properly.
Trevor Inglis said: "The fabrics we offer through the weavers will always be tested to make sure that the user's requirements are met. It's important to make sure that fabrics made with our fibre are always fit for the job.
"Another advantage is that our products are spun-dyed so they are coloured at the time of production, which means that the colours are permanent - we have a range of over 40 colours available so whatever the customer's requirement is, we can meet it."
IQ Textiles, meanwhile, offers a different solution. Carbon X is a flame retardant fibre that can be used from the lowest performance levels right up to the very top end of the market.
Neil Davey said: "It can be put into any form: woven, non-woven, felts, waddings, knitted products and so on. It's made of carbon, which is what's left when things burn off, so it's inherently flame retardant.
"The standard carbon-based fibres or fabrics tend to be quite brittle, but that's why we mix it with other fibres. It's been used in foundries, riot suits for the police and obviously uniforms for firemen.
"Because it doesn't burn, it doesn't form a hole - so you can have a single piece of Carbon X outer material and roll a piece of 2,000 degree centigrade molten brass around in it."
Another heavy-duty fibre is DuPont's Nomex, a 30-year-old fibre which offers extremely powerful flame protection and has been used in industries as varied as fire fighting and formula one racing.
The options: Protex and treatments
Perhaps the wearer's needs are less intensive, however. In this case, a fibre such as Protex may prove a more economical option. Protex was developed by the Kaneka Corporation of Japan and is distributed in Europe by Waxman Fibres Ltd.
Jonathan Smith, technical manager and Protex brand manager at Waxman Fibres, told director-e: "When the fibre comes into contact with a flame, it releases a small amount of gas, which displaces the oxygen and extinguishes it.
"Protex has a synergy with cotton in that it fights the fire and the cotton helps it to char, so that instead of burning a hole, the fabric maintains a protective layer that protects the skin. That allows the wearer to buy the time to put the fire out or to escape.
"The protection is permanent and should last the whole lifetime of the garment. The demand for Protex has grown quite rapidly over the last three years.
"A major part of this increase is due to garment and fabric specifiers purchasing a more appropriate cost-effective protective product rather than just accepting the same over-specified item time after time." (To contact Waxman Fibres, call Contact Jonathan Smith on +44 (0) 1422 310600 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
The fibre is largely aimed at the workwear market, such as workers within the utilities sector or base layer clothing for fire fighters.
But not every solution has to come from inherently FR fibres; there is also the option to coat ordinary material such as cotton with special chemicals to make them flame resistant.
However, treated fabrics will lose their protection with repeated washing and abrasion, making them impractical for some jobs. However, there are some advantages, as Gavin Shepherd of Dale Intertec explained.
"Inherently FR fabrics can be a significant investment but can pay for themselves over the course of their lifespans," he said.
"However, if the threat of fire is only occasional and the risk is minimal then the employer might decide that treated fabrics are a more economical option."
All of this is well and good, but some threats require more than just a single type of FR fibre to provide protection. That's where the expertise of fabric companies comes into the equation.
TenCate has been operating for more than three centuries now and remains a major player in the fabric works, with its TenCate Protect bv division handling the company's protective textiles within Europe and its sister company TenCate Southern Mills in North America.
The company offers a variety of FR fabric solutions, including inherently FR fabrics and FR treated materials. It uses a variety of fibres and is a producer of Nomex fabrics.
One of TenCate's major fabric ranges comprises the patented Tecasafe fabrics, which the company describes as 'the multi-safe solution' as they protect not only against fire, but also against electric arc, static electricity discharges and some chemical exposure.
Bill Marrs, sales manager for the UK and Ireland at TenCate Protect, said: "There's cotton in there, a specialised modacrylic, some Kevlar, some polyamide and antistatic fibres. The reason for adding Kevlar and polyamide is to improve the physical properties, such as abrasion, of the lighter weight fabrics in the Tecasafe range.
"We try to make sure that all of the end user's requirements are fulfilled by the fabrics by offering a wide range of combinations that will fit a variety of end uses."
Dale Intertec, too creates technical textiles from a variety of fibres. Gavin Shepherd said: "In terms of fire fighting, we are a vital part in the supply chain and work closely with our customers to provide a wide range of textile solutions.
We use fibres such as Nomex, Kermel, Protex, Kevlar or variations thereof as well as coated, treated, laminated and composite fabrics; we try and cover as wide a range as possible."
Trials and testing
One final thing to consider about the clothing process is whether or not you want to perform wearer trials. These involve test versions of the workwear being produced so that your employees can see how comfortable they are in the work environment.
Alex from Lenzing said: "Wearer trials are not cheap but, it is important to remember that FR clothing is not like standard workwear - this is something that will be used in life-threatening situations and it is important that it is as comfortable and practical as possible.
"Ideally, this should never be compromised by a need to save money, but I know that every company is looking to save money where they can. Nevertheless, it is important to consider it seriously."
Once you have all this in mind, then, where should you start looking for clothing? Happily, the nature of the FR fibre and fabric business means that all points in the production chain tend to work closely with one another, so fibre companies may be able to recommend good garment manufacturers and vice versa.
Gavin from Dale Intertec said: "Due to the nature of our business, we generate a significant number of enquiries either through our website or by e-mail from people looking for fabrics, garments or articles. Sometimes these people don’t fully know exactly what they want or where to go for it.
"Our customers are typically specialist garment manufacturers, so when people make garment enquiries with us, we find out the specific requirements are and either assist or pass them on to one of our relevant customers.
“We work closely with a number of companies who specialise in certain fields, such as fire-fighting, and once we know the potential threat levels, we can guide customers to the right companies, saving them a great deal of time.”
So ends our brief look at the intricacies of buying FR garments. While the process can sometimes be confusing and complicated, it is also vitally important to maintaining the lives and well-being of millions of people worldwide - and in the end, isn't that the most important thing?