Historically, workers who wear flame-resistant (FR) clothing have had two options for fabric: aramid or treated cotton. Over the years, though, the FR market has seen a paradigm shift due to companies and wearers looking to enhance their image and increase comfort without forsaking the personal protection of their employees. Naturally, then, one of the most talked about subjects in the personal protective equipment (PPE) world for the past few years has been heat stress.

Heat stress can best be prevented through education, such as knowing what causes heat stress and what its warning signs are. But a big question for safety managers remains: “Does FR clothing cause heat stress?” The short answer is no, but it can be a contributing factor. Below is data from the North Carolina Department of Labor that outlines how workers can avoid heat stress:

• Acclimatization (short work exposure early in the hot season, followed by gradual increases in intensity and duration)

• Frequent work breaks in an area cooler than the work environment

• Drinking plenty of water or non-caffeinated beverages

• Wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothing

• Avoiding all alcohol and caffeine  

So how do you help prevent heat stress when specifying your workers’ PPE? Through a well-implemented workwear program. This all starts with the employer imparting education and awareness. It then trickles through the supply chain from the fabric manufacturer to the garment manufacturer, the distributor, and then the actual wearer. 

Industry standards set by regulatory agencies such as OSHA have encouraged fabric and PPE manufacturers to drive technological advancements further. But because many of today’s companies often have to do more with less, safety can be even tougher to maintain, thus increasing the risk of an incident.

For many years, the primary workwear service option was to use an industrial laundry service company, which oftentimes utilized a 7- or 9-ounce fabric for the program (heavier weight options for the respective fabrics selected). Fortunately, those options have also drastically changed in recent years. 

Today’s domestic fabric manufacturers have worked to develop lighter-weight fabrics and different blends. Garment manufacturers have been tasked with creating finished goods that are more stylish and functional to maximize comfort. Some examples are vented shirts to assist in cooling the worker or lighter-weight pants to replace heavy jeans. 

Through on-site informational calls and tradeshows, end-users have been introduced to these advancements, and industrial launderers have in turn adapted some of these new fabrics to accommodate their clients’ needs. The most important factor, though, is you: the customer. You have many options for how to receive service, and you can buy what you want when you want it.

After you have identified your workers’ safety requirements as well as any additional hurdles such as heat stress, you should be able to specify a set of garments made with the right fabric. The next step is then to conduct a wear trial — put those garments on your people. Evaluate them in real work conditions, and gather information from the person wearing the garment on its comfort, functionality, and performance. This process also helps build employee morale and productivity, because you are seeking their invaluable input, letting them know you care and hear them. 

If their buy-in is achieved, it increases the success of the program. After the wear trial, you must specifically name the fabric and weight, the garment manufacturer, and the distributor you select in order to guarantee you receive the product you need.