Mark Lant explains exactly what the risks of uncomfortable PPE are, why ‘universal fit’ garments can exacerbate the situation, and how to overcome the problem.

When it comes to protecting workers from the dangers posed by working around high and low voltage electricity on a daily basis, the importance of PPE is widely understood by managers and operatives alike. In fact, most employers wouldn’t dream of letting their teams on-site without adequate protection. However, one factor of PPE that is often overlooked is its comfort, and this can have a significant impact on the level of protection provided to the wearer.

Comfort is key

Arc Flash protective clothing has historically been thought of as uncomfortable. This is primarily because in the past, the clothing was typically made from fabrics that provided great protection, but were often heavy and stiff, and that were rough against bare skin.

An Arc Flash is when an arcing fault releases dangerous levels of radiant energy, which vaporizes metal that spews from the arc. The air is super-heated, causing pressure waves that can throw individuals across rooms and create a deadly molten shrapnel. They can be caused by voltage spikes, worn connections, cable strikes or gaps in insulation, and are a risk even in low-voltage set ups.

With temperatures of up to 35,000ºF, which is more than four times hotter than the surface of the sun, an Arc Flash has the potential to burn an operative’s skin within fractions of a second. Treatment for those that survive an incident can require years of skin grafts, hospital stays and rehabilitation – they may never recover sufficiently to regain their lifestyle, meaning PPE really is the last line of defence for workers.

A garment can offer the ultimate protection, but if your team does not feel comfortable wearing it, that protection diminishes when they choose not to wear the garment correctly. Every feature must be designed for comfort as well as protection.

Bulky and rigid PPE is frequently worn incorrectly – it’s all too easy to wear an everyday belt, to roll sleeves up or undo a jacket when a garment is uncomfortable, but all this seriously compromises the safety of an individual against an Arc Flash. For females working in these industries, this problem is only heightened when combined with the universal fit of PPE that many women are faced with wearing.

The problem with universal PPE

The number of female workers in the industry is on the incline, and while increasingly mixed gender workforces is a positive change, the traditional universal fit of PPE can pose risks to female workers.

The universal fit of safety garments combined with increasingly mixed gender workforces across all industries is posing a great risk to female workers, due to protective clothing that is not tailored to their size and shape. Women have different hip to waist ratios from men, as well as wider forefeet and shorter foot arches, meaning that simply offering menswear in smaller sizes, or a unisex range simply isn’t sufficient. Women may often have to opt for their trousers to be the size bigger, to accommodate for their hips, resulting in trousers that are too long and kneecap pads in the wrong location, all posing risks to the wearer.

Many women are often faced with wearing either unisex or men’s jackets, which are sizes too big and not suitably fitted, making them bulky and often uncomfortable to wear. While many may not realise it, these ill-fitting clothes hugely impact the level of protection. Uncomfortable and baggy jackets make it all too tempting to roll up the sleeves or unfasten the jacket, which leaves areas of the body unprotected against the potentially fatal dangers of an Arc Flash. Additionally, ill-fitting PPE makes it tempting to use an everyday belt to ensure a better fit, however these are vulnerable to catching fire or melting into the PPE should an Arc Flash event occur.

However, uncomfortable PPE can now be a thing of the past. Garments made with inherent protective fibres, instead of a protective coating added post-production, allow movement, breathability and moisture management. The fabric readily absorbs sweat and then dries quickly, not only providing cooling in hot, humid conditions, but also preventing sweat running down the skin.

Treated vs inherent fabrics

The two phrases regularly used when shopping for Arc Flash PPE clothing are ‘treated fabric’ and ‘inherent fabric’. Treated fabric is made from fibres which are not flame retardant by nature but have undergone a chemical process to add a fire resistance quality to them. The protection given by a treated fabric relies on that treatment not being degraded or worn off in any way during its lifetime. However, washing or long-term use can reduce the protection these safety garments offer, which is why this type of clothing is generally cheaper.

Inherent fabric, on the other hand, refers to material which has fire retardant properties as part of its natural make-up. In other words, they needn’t undergo a chemical process to become flame-retardant, as the polymers which make up the clothing are inherently so. Inherent fabric does not lose any of its protective qualities after long periods of wear or washing but does tend to be more expensive due to its durability.

It is these inherent fabrics that provide increased levels of comfort to the operative, which only further enhance the protection provided by the garments.

Reece Safety's 5 Health and Safety Essentials

As part of ensuring a safe environment for work, a series of health and safety precautions must be taken in order to control and effectively manage risks. Reece Safety have considered some of the top health and safety essentials which should be implemented to ensure a safe system of work.

  • Training
  • Risk Assessments
  • Written Procedures
  • Compliance
  • Safety Signs

Every workplace should ensure that their employees are trained to a high standard to recognise potential hazards and how to effectively control them. Clear and up to date training should be provided for all employees, along with ensuring any outside contractors have also received the required training before conducting any work.

Before work can commence, a full risk assessment must be completed to ensure that health and safety is being effectively managed. Risk assessments include highlighting any potential hazards and implementing effective controls and steps to prevent accidents or injuries occurring. As part of a risk assessment procedure you must first identify the hazard, consider who this affects, evaluate the risk it poses, then consider the controls required to prevent this hazard occurring.

Health and safety policies and procedures should be written down to clearly communicate your methods of eliminating or reducing hazards within the workplace. The written procedure is a commitment to ensuring a safe working environment and should be available to view by any employee or visitor.

When considering health and safety in the workplace it is important to be fully aware of all the laws and regulations which are relevant to your sector. Remaining compliant and within the law is vital, not only to protect your business legally, but most importantly to ensure the safety of your employees. Any regulation changes which affect your business should be acted on accordingly and up to date training or equipment should be provided as necessary, in order to remain compliant.

In order to communicate health and safety procedures and hazards effectively, safety signs should be clearly displayed around the workplace. Wherever there are potential hazards, the appropriate sign should be on show, in a highly visible and well-lit position.