In the field of purchasing, there is a well-known warning “Caveat Emptor” which translated from the Latin means "let the buyer beware". In general terms, this aims to caution the Buyer that no matter what the Seller says about the product /service being purchased, the Buyer has a responsibility to satisfy themselves that what they are buying is what they believe they are buying.
The principle Caveat Emptor is particularly relevant when considering buying products/services that are to protect persons from potentially mortally dangerous exposures. In this field of activity, many sellers make claims about the products/ services being offered that at best are not quite accurate and at worst are false and can result in injury or death due to inadequate or unprotected exposure of the wearer/user of the product/service.
Clothing to protect persons from the effects of heat and flame is a case in point. The purpose of using such protective clothing is to allow persons to work in environments where without the protection afforded by the clothing, they normally could not work without the risk of injury or death. If the clothing that is purchased is below the specification stated and required, failure could seriously injure or kill the wearer.
A person who wants to buy an item for personal or household use generally knows in detail what features and performance that they require before they buy it. Usually they will specify their requirements to the salesperson and will have enough knowledge of the product they wish to buy to be able to evaluate whether the claims made by the seller are valid or not. On the other hand, when items are purchased that could save one’s life, it is the writer’s experience that the potential purchaser has little knowledge of the features required and usually what the seller claims about the product is accepted without question. Perhaps this is because in this area of activity, the purchaser does not know the questions to ask???
Purchasers should be aware that there are International minimum specifications for the purchase of all items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Where there is a risk that personnel may be exposed to heat and/or flame in their work place, they should be issued with suitable protective clothing. So that they make the correct choice of such clothing, purchasers should know what the clothing is expected to do. The role of such clothing is initially to act as a flame shield when exposed to sudden flame i.e. a barrier between the wearer and the flames, and to provide protection against heat transfer from the flame/heat source.
It should also provide protection for the wearer as they escape from the exposure. This type of protective clothing should provide the required level of thermal protection consistent with the potential risk to which the wearer might be exposed and escaping from and for its lifetime, should not burn, melt or disintegrate on exposure to flame. It should also provide mechanical protection i.e. resistance against tearing, abrasion, seam splitting and where relevant and subject to its intended use, it may also need to provide conspicuity, protection against the weather i.e. rain, snow, cold, etc. and protection against chemicals.
In such an area of activity where failure of protection is essential and is not an option, it is critical that the product is purchased from sources where there are continuous checks and testing of the product to provide the manufacturer, purchaser and user a level of certainty that the protective clothing being purchased is what is known as “fit for purpose” i.e. it will do what is expected of it within the environment in which it is expected to perform. The final production of items of protective clothing is a result of passing through a “value chain” i.e. a chain of activities whereby products pass through a line of stages of manufacture and at each activity the original raw material is subjected to manufacturing processes that assist on its way to becoming the finished product.
Reputable Organisations who produce quality products that perform as it is claimed they perform; rigidly impose standards of performance and of quality from the beginning of the value chain until its end, when the user takes delivery of the final product.
The value chain for clothing to protect against heat and flame commences as a fibre, which is manufactured into yarns, the yarn is manufactured into fabric and the fabric is manufactured into the clothing.
Fibre forms the basic element of fabrics and other textile structures. A type of fibre that is widely used in clothing to protect against heat and flame is in a chemical family called meta-aramid, a fibre that is characterised by its strength and in particular, its excellent resistance to heat and flame throughout its lifetime. Well known meta-aramid fibres used in clothing to protect against heat and flame are Kermel, Nomex and Conex.
Fibres in their raw form cannot be used to make clothing. For this purpose, they must be converted into yarns and the process used for yarn formation is spinning, the twisting together of fibres to form yarn. Yarns are used to construct the fabric and are also used to manufacture threads to sew the fabric together as a garment. A meta-aramid yarn results from spinning meta-aramid fibre.
The conversion of yarns into fabric is a major change in physical form. In manufacturing fabrics for clothing to protect against heat and flame using inherently flame resistant fibres, other factors are
taken into account subject to the ultimate end use of the garment. These factors include structure, weight, comfort, strength, resilience, colour etc. Other factors may also need to be considered subject to the proposed ultimate end use e.g. water/chemical resistance, visibility, protection against electrostatic discharge etc. Fabrics manufactured from meta-aramid yarns will be mixed with other special high quality fibres to provide these required features in the fabric that in the next stage of the value chain will be used to manufacture the garment.
The garment manufacturer designs into the garment the features that it is expected the ultimate purchaser will require – type and location of pockets, closure systems etc. With clothing to protect against heat and flame, the designer must ensure that the design of garment will provide protection to the upper and lower torso including the arms to the wrists and the legs to the feet in the event of unexpected flame engulfment of the wearer.
The thread that is used to sew the critical parts of the garment should be thread made from meta-aramid or other inherently flame resisting yarn. If for example, the thread used at the main seams of the garment is not of such quality, when exposed to flame it will melt or burn and the garment will fall apart, thus exposing the wearer to possible direct contact with the flames/heat source.
At all stages of the value chain, reputable manufacturers will continually carry out sampling and testing to verify that protection and quality of the product are maintained. At the stage of garment manufacture, the garments will be tested and certified by an independent testing laboratory to either CEN (European), NFPA (American) or ISO (International) standards for the type of protective clothing for which the end use is intended. Such tests are destructive tests of fabric and/or garment and so it is very important that the garment manufacturer can adequately demonstrate that garments of the same design, content and quality of the garments/fabrics that successfully passed the relevant CEN/NFPA/ISO tests are being made by the manufacturer on a consistent basis.
Many reputable manufacturers throughout the value chain demonstrate their commitment to quality by having in place the internationally recognised ISO 9001 standard for quality management systems. To retain certification to ISO 9001, organisations must be regularly audited by nationally recognised certification bodies, which themselves require to be accredited by national and/or international accreditation bodies in order to undertake this work.
Sale to User
In a quality value chain, there will be no passing on from one stage to the next until the manufacturer that is to receive the product is quite satisfied that what they are to receive and to take to the next stage of the chain is of a level of quality that is acceptable by all concerned. Each organisation engaged in each stage of the value chain should be able to produce third party verification of quality in production and other activity. This means that when the final stage of the value chain is reached and the purchasing decision can be taken, the potential purchaser can establish the quality of product from the beginning of the manufacturing process along the value chain to the finished product i.e. the clothing to be purchased.
After purchase, the user should have in effect procedures for the use, inspection, care and maintenance of the protective clothing. Unless the protective clothing purchased is of internationally recognised quality and certified to the minimum performance levels required by CEN/NFPA/ISO when it begins its life of use, all efforts to control the protective ability of the clothing in use will come to nothing.
The famous Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a well-known tale entitled “The Emperor's New Clothes". This tale has some very close similarities with the purchase of clothing to protect against heat and flame. The tale tells of two weavers who make false claims about the product they make to the Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire. They tell him that they will manufacture a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those unfit for their positions or who are stupid or incompetent.
The Emperor believes their story and so cannot see the cloth himself, but he pretends that he can and for fear of appearing unfit for their position or stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects. They in turn, all pretend to see the clothes too, until a child in the crowd calls out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is only then taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.
The first similarity between this tale and purchasing items of clothing to protect against heat and flame is that unfortunately, in the market for clothing to protect against heat and flame, some manufacturers/suppliers make false claims that cannot be shown to be false until it is too late – when the garment fails to provide the necessary protection on exposure to flame and the wearer is badly burnt. The second similarity is that if the Emperor was seeking protection against heat and flame there is no doubt that he would be far safer wearing no clothes at all, than wearing clothes that could catch fire. Studies of persons who have survived from exposure to flame show that the parts of the body covered by clothing that has burnt will often suffer the most severe burns. The head and hands, which were fully exposed to the heat of the fire exposure were established as being less severely burnt than parts of the body that in theory, would have been best shielded by clothing from the heat of the fire.
The last similarity is that, like the crowd looking at the Emperor’s “new clothes”, too many purchasers accept without question the claims made by suppliers about the clothing that they manufacture. In the field of safety of personnel, the consequences of this blind acceptance usually cannot be seen until it is too late.
Throughout the world there are Health and Safety requirements to protect company employees. There is also a responsibility placed on employers to ensure the safety of their employees. This is often disregarded when purchasing departments, with no knowledge of the dangers inherent at an
incident/accident over-rule the end user department on matters of cost.
The person who makes the purchasing decision for protective clothing is the person who sets the organisation’s parameters for protection of the persons who have to wear it. Therefore the decision maker should have knowledge of the risks against which the protective clothing is supposed to protect and before selecting the protective clothing, a risk assessment of the workplace should be carried out to establish the type of protective clothing that will be “fit for purpose” for their employees who will wear it.
If purchasers have any concerns about the validity of any certification presented by a potential vendor, including claims of certification to ISO 9001, they should check the validity of the certification by contacting the issuer of the certification to establish whether or not the certification documentation is genuine and within valid dates and that it has not been altered in any way e.g. by removal of the manufacturer’s identity at any point in the value chain. Reputable Certification Bodies are very happy to answer such questions and indeed encourage any potential purchaser or user to take this action.
Purchasers should realise that they are the main players in any purchasing decision – it is ultimately the decision of the purchaser whether or not the purchase takes place. As such, the purchaser should make the necessary demands from the supplier for the supplier to demonstrate that what they are buying is what they think they are buying. Any reputable manufacturer/supplier will easily and readily comply with this requirement.
So I say to purchasers, “Caveat Emptor” – and truly protect the lives of those who will wear the clothing that you purchase for them.
Alec Feldman BBS, MA FIFireE.
Fulcrum Consultants, Dublin, Ireland. firstname.lastname@example.org
Author, JOIFF Handbook on PPE to protect Against Heat and Flame (Available for download at www.joif.com)
Member of the National Fire Protection Association. (USA).
Represents National Standards Authority of Ireland on CEN (European) and ISO (International) Standards Organisation Committees dealing with Standards for Clothing to protect against heat and flame/.
Member of NFPA (USA) Technical Committees for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications and Flash Firegarments.
Member of ASTM (USA) International Committees on Homeland Security and Protective Clothing.