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Flame Retardant Clothing - A Guide

Published: 10th Sep 2011 in OSA Magazine

This article aims to provide simple facts to the reader in relation to the popular issues surrounding flame retardant fabrics and garments, especially those used in the oil and gas industries.

Workers within the oil, gas, chemical and power generation industries have a fundamental need to wear clothing that is resistant to heat and flames which can result from flash fire, or the heat and flame generated by electrical arcs.

While flame retardant clothing has been with us for several decades we are experiencing an exciting period of development and innovation in the types of fabrics that are suitable to be manufactured in to personal protective garments and workwear.

In addition to treated cotton fabrics – of which there are a number of different chemical treatments available – the market has recently seen a number of new synthetic based fabrics which are able to give acceptable protection with lighter weights per square yard or metre.

In order to provide focus, I will concentrate this article on the basic requirements for the oil and gas industry where the threat of flash fire is the main hazard.

Within Europe, it is important to note that the selection of any type of protective clothing or equipment must be included in your risk assessment, and also any products chosen must be evaluated for their performance and also their co-ordination with other items of PPE.

International testing standards

Flame retardant clothing has to conform to international testing standards before it can be offered in any marketplace. Currently there are the European Standard BS EN ISO 11612; the USA Standard NFPA 2112 and also standards in Canada, Australia and other areas of the world. Each region’s standard closely resembles another’s as you would expect, but each region does have certain stipulations which only appear in their standard. Again, to provide focus, and since Simon Safety is based in the UK, we will refer only to the European Standard, although the International Organization for Standardization is a good resource for other global regions.

In addition to the main standard of BS EN ISO 11612 there are additional standards for fabrics and garments for workers exposed to heat and flame such as the new standards BS EN ISO 14116 and BS EN ISO 11611 for limited flame spread fabrics, but for finished garments within the oil and gas industry it is the BS EN ISO 11612 which is the most important.

One of the main objectives of the standard is to ensure that workers caught in typical short duration flash fires suffer in the worst case scenario nothing worse than second degree burns to the areas protected by the garment. A second degree burn is an injury from which the body can recover completely.

The standard is not concerned with clothing required by fire fighting personnel.


One of the challenges certainly for the up-stream and to a lesser extent the down-stream oil and gas industry is that Mother Nature has deposited the majority of these two fossil fuels in parts of the world with extreme climates. Indeed, some workers may have to endure up to +50°C, while others may suffer –50°C or worse.

This huge fluctuation ensures that manufacturers have to be able to offer many different types of garments in differing weights and constructions, which ultimately have a direct bearing on the protection level that the clothing gives the wearer. Workers in cold and temperate climates will enjoy the best protection levels, while workers in the hotter climates will unfortunately always have to balance protection with comfort in order to work effectively.

Fabrics – inherent and treated

Of all of the fabrics currently available they normally fall into one of two categories, which means that they will be either ‘Inherent’ or ‘Treated’. The paragraphs below will name a few of the more popular fabrics and treatments; however, it is impossible to list all of the options offered in the marketplace within this article. It is therefore important to state that the omission of any brand name in this article is not intentional, nor does it infer any opinion on them by the writer.

Inherent garments

Garments manufactured from Inherent fabrics will always retain their flame resistant properties regardless of how many launderings are applied to them, and so as long as the garment is deemed serviceable by the user they should have the confidence that the garment will still afford the protection that they required when the garment was first purchased. This can translate into better cost in use values, even though Inherent garments are more costly to purchase initially.

There is currently a large choice of Aramid fabrics (such as Nomex®), Mod-Acrylic fabrics (such as Flashguard®) and combinations of fabrics such as viscose-Kermel®.

Nomex® is arguably the best known manmade fabric as it is used not only for industrial protection but also for applications as diverse as Fire Fighter clothing, and clothing worn by Formula 1 teams and drivers. Nomex® is normally mixed with an anti-static fibre to make clothing which is also anti-static. It is sometimes mixed with around 5% Kevlar® to increase its tear strength.

Mod-Acrylic fabrics are also manmade – the term is short for ‘modified acrylic‘. They are normally mixed with a good percentage of cotton, which adds to the comfort and breathability of the finished garment and also allows it to be dyed in brighter colours, including high visibility yellow, to achieve BS EN 471 which is more difficult with Aramid fabrics.

They can also be mixed with Kevlar®to increase tear strength where higher mechanical protection is required, and anti-static fibres when the end user requires anti-static properties. Mod-Acrylic fabrics are also generally cheaper.

Inherent garments can normally provide adequate levels of protection to pass BS EN ISO 11612 using a lighter weight fabric compared to a treated cotton fabric, which for hotter climates is essential.

Treated garments

The majority of treated garments offered in the workplace are 100% cotton which has been treated with a chemical that extinguishes flames on the fabric within less than two seconds. Some of the most popular treatments are Proban® and Pyrovatex®. The Norwegian manufacturer Daletec is one of the world’s most famous manufacturers of a wide range of treated cotton garments, as is the USA based manufacturer Westex.

Finished garment manufacturers such as Red Wing in the USA are now ensuring that their cotton based garments and garments that contain cotton are compliant to the Oeke-Tex 100 standard. This guarantees that the fabric contains no health risk substances and emphasises protection of the end user.

Oeke-Tex 100 sets limits for the maximum content of formaldehyde, pesticides, PCB, heavy metal, azo dye, arly amine flame retarding agents, phthalate, volatile organic substances, biocides and other substances.

There is a smaller offering of treated polyester garments which can range from 100% polyester to roughly 50/50 cotton mixed with polyester. The greatest limiting factor with this type of fabric is that the flame retardant treatment will launder out far earlier than a 100% cotton fabric, with some manufacturers stipulating only a five wash cycle before replacement. One of the main niches for this fabric is to conform to either EN 471 or the UK GO/RT standard, where the requirement is for high visibility orange.

Treated cotton garments tend to be offered in heavier fabric weights than their Inherent counterparts, which can be beneficial in some instances. Cotton based garments are significantly cheaper and as such are the most popular type of garment in the oil and gas industry today.

There is a common concern with treated cotton garments that at some stage due to laundering the chemical treatment will wear off, or at least reduce its effectiveness. This usually isn’t a concern where garments are replaced quickly, say in less than a year, but where garments are rotated for anything over two years on a normal wash, every two to three weeks it would be prudent to adopt a management process to record each garment’s service life.

Treated cotton garments have very good resistance to pilling and good abrasion resistance, especially in the heavier weight fabrics.

Retro reflective tapes

Retro reflective tapes are increasingly being specified by end users for their garments, to add to worker safety in low light conditions and for night time working. While there is a standard for high visibility the majority of garments used in the oil and gas industry are not required to meet this standard. The simple addition of tape to the shoulders, arms and legs in the ‘Nordic’ style is deemed sufficient.

Any retro reflective tape added to flame retardant garments must be flame retardant itself; it is not acceptable within BS EN ISO 11612 to use a non flame retardant tape.

Badges, decals and embroidery

The standard BS EN ISO 11612 now stipulates that any badges, decals or direct/indirect embroidery must be of a similar flammability resistance to the fabric that it is fitted to. The previous standard of EN531 made no mention of this, which resulted in many different types of logos being applied to flame retardant garments with presumably many being flammable.

Flame retardant, heat applied decals and Aramid embroidery threads are widely available and must be used for flame retardant garment applications. Each type of media will be supported with a conformity certificate which can be obtained from your garment manufacturer or garment printer, and should be retained by the end user.

Which fabric is best?

The selection of the most appropriate garment and which fabric to choose will depend on a number of factors such as:
• Fabric type and weight
• Colours required
• Activity being undertaken
• Expected environment the garment is to be used in
• Expected service life of each garment
• Overall ‘life’ cost of the garment

Off the shelf, or bespoke?

Once you have decided which garment is right for you the next step is to either opt for an off the shelf garment or decide to purchase a bespoke design for your needs.

Off the shelf, or stock garments are continually evolving, presumably as manufacturers are adding in features from their customers’ bespoke designs when they feel an addition is beneficial to the mass market. Buying off the shelf will generally return a faster delivery time.

Should you opt for a bespoke design you must ensure that the finished garment conforms to the relevant standard (BS EN ISO 11612); it isn’t acceptable to simply have a conformity certificate for the fabric that the garment is constructed from. The standard applies to finished garments and so the design of pockets, flaps, pleats, the fitment of metal studs and other features will have to be evaluated by a certified independent testing body in order to claim conformity to the standard.

Under and over garments

Whichever climate is encountered it should be possible to compliment the protection afforded by the flame retardant garment with additional layers of clothing both below and above the main garment. In hotter climates this may only take the form of cotton underwear, but in colder climates the wearer can choose both under garments and over garments.

While plain, untreated cotton is acceptable for underwear the availability nowadays of underwear that is also flame retardant strengthens the argument that the underwear, or base layers, should be specified to be flame retardant. Where possible wearers should adopt long sleeve and long leg options to obtain the maximum protection possible.

Flame retardant base layers are constructed from similar fabrics to the general flame retardant workwear, such as treated cottons and inherent fabrics, or mixes of the two. As with the main workwear garments, it is important that these base layers also conform to the Oeke;-Tex 100 standard, as they are worn next to the skin.

Where workers need additional layers placed over the flame retardant workwear they must, without question, only use garments that are flame retardant themselves. Ideally conformity to BS EN ISO 11612 should be specified. This is due to the fact that any non flame retardant garments placed over the flame retardant workwear will continue to burn following any flash fire, and may be difficult or even impossible to remove, which will result in the wearer obtaining significantly worse injury than if the additional garment had not been worn.

I cannot stress how important it is to take great care when selecting any garment that is placed over or underneath a flame retardant coverall, or other type of workwear. This would include the selection of disposable coveralls, waterproof clothing and any extra warm layers needed to give extra thermal protection against cold.

Laundering of garments

During the life of the flame retardant garment it will need to be regularly laundered in order to both remove any dirt and contamination (which may also be flammable) and to retain a smart and presentable uniform for the worker.

The quality of the laundry service available to the end user is of high importance as incorrect or bad processing of flame retardant garments can seriously affect the performance, fit and look of all of the fabrics mentioned so far.

It is imperative that the garments are laundered to the instructions provided by the manufacturer in the care label sewn into the garment, and also the written instruction sheet which has to be provided as part of the compliance to BS EN ISO 11612.

All garments will shrink if subjected to high temperatures either in the wash cycle and more commonly in the drying process if the laundry has to ‘speed things through’. Cotton is a fabric which will shrink during every wash cycle if the care instructions are not followed. There are small benefits with this in terms of protection from flames; however, the reduction in fit and comfort far outweigh this, as the garments are potentially un-wearable. In addition to shrinking, a high amount of heat will damage the cotton fibres making the fabric brittle and vulnerable to mechanical damage.

Bleaches and ‘sour’ or acid rinses will also adversely affect all types of fabrics, so it is important not to use these substances in the wash cycle, especially as the majority of manufacturers stipulate that they are not to be used. There is also an environmental benefit in
not using them.

I do not wish to discourage end users from choosing cotton based garments; cotton is still – and as far as can been seen going to be – a major clothing fabric in the oil and gas industry for years to come. It is the responsibility of the end user to ensure that they have made the best choice from the fabrics and designs available.

A good management system will ensure that the laundry service used is regularly assessed for compliance to ensure that the end user’s garments are kept in good condition so that they are able to provide the required levels of protection.

If garments are contaminated beyond the capability of the washing instructions then action should be taken by the end user to evaluate whether the task should be altered, or different garments utilised for any particular task where the
contamination is picked up.


In closing, it is apparent that care and attention must be applied when specifying which type of flame retardant garment is to be used. It may be the case that on a single site there may be several different options utilised by the same company depending on which activity particular workers are undertaking. Simply picking the perceived ‘best’ fabric may result in high overspend if the chosen fabric is used for an unsuitable activity. At the other end of the scale, if the selection is made purely on cost it may result in lack of protection and possible increased injury for the wearer.

As more and more manufacturers utilise safer Oeke-Tex standard, fabrics, end users and persons specifying products should consider the potential long term effects of wearing other types of fabrics next to the skin that may contain high levels of formaldehyde, which is a proven carcinogen. It is certainly the case that end users should strive to select products from providers that can demonstrate bona fide credentials in terms of testing and compliance to the standards for their region, and this includes issues such as laundry and the attachment of badges, logos and names. 

Author details:

Mark Smith is a director at Simon Safety, which is an independent supplier of personal protective equipment and clothing. Simon Safety is the Red Wing Shoe Company’s official distributor for England and Wales, for its range of safety footwear and flame retardant garments.

About Simon Safety

Simon Safety are leaders in Safety Technology, supplying Personal Protective Equipment, Workwear, Corporate Clothing and associated services to the Oil, Gas and Power Generation industries worldwide.

Our Company Head Office and Distribution Centre is located in Milford Haven,West Wales alongside the UK’s largest Oil and Gas
Port, the new energy capital of the UK. From this prime location we are able to offer top quality standards of service and able to distribute products internationally.

The Company has been supplying the Oil, Gas and Power Generation industries for more than a decade and has grown to be a highly respected supplier and provider of quality products, renowned for its ability and willingness to respond to the needs and expectations of its clients.

At Simon Safety, we are committed to protecting men and women exposed to risks in all types of industries and work environments. It is this commitment that drives us to offer our clients high quality equipment to meet the wide variety of workers’ safety needs combining leading technology, comfort and ergonomic design.

Simon Safety offers a complete range of Personal Protective Equipment and safety supplies from International leading Brands.

At Simon Safety & Lifting Centre Ltd our team’s main objective is the safety and wellbeing of all our customers.

W: www.simon-safety.co.uk

T: + 44 (0) 1646 6007 


Published: 10th Sep 2011 in OSA Magazine


Mark J Smith

Simon Safety & Lifting Centre Ltd 

Mark J Smith


+ 44 (0) 1646 6007

+ 44 (0) 1646 6007

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