The difference between flame retardant and arc flash resistant

Mark Lant, technical expert at ProGARM talks us through the differences between flame retardant and arc flash resistant PPE, and why you should always know the difference.

In any potentially hazardous environment, it is of fundamental importance to understand how risks can be mitigated. Here we consider the risk of arc flash incidents and the need to protect your team with specialist protection from the dangers such an incident can pose.

Mitigating risk with safe working practices, and by providing appropriate garments that offer superior Arc Flash protection, saves lives every day. For many decades, flame resistant clothing has helped reduce the risk of severe burn injuries to workers. These types of garments are either made from treated cotton or, more often nowadays, self-extinguishing materials. Both of which provide managers with a reliable option for keeping their teams safe. However, while most health and safety professionals are confident about fire and electrical safety protection, they may be less knowledgeable against the dangers posed by an arc flash incident.

Contrary to popular belief, flame retardant PPE can’t protect against burns in an arc flash incident, as these burns aren’t caused by fire, but by thermal energy. This means that protecting a team against an arc flash incident requires more specialist garments. 

What is an arc flash?

Hotter than the sun and louder than a bullet being shot, an arc flash is when an arcing fault releases dangerous levels of radiant energy, which vaporises 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. 

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, so it’s safe to say that choosing the appropriate PPE is key when it comes to arc flash safety. 

How does flame resistant differ from arc flash?

Unfortunately, although flame resistant clothing meets acceptable industry standards for the risks associated with fires, unless they are specifically designed and certified they are not designed to also withstand an arc flash incident. 

There are, in fact, separate safety standards for arc flash clothing, which go further than the ones for fire resistance, meaning that the level of protection provided by flame resistant clothing does not match that of arc-resistant PPE. Indeed, fabric used in arc-resistant garments must meet higher tear resistance and tensile strength than those required for fire-resistant clothing.

This is because arc flash protective clothing is designed to not only protect operatives from fire, but from the thermal energy generated by an arc flash, which can also cause external and internal burns.

While the threads used for the structural seams must be fire-resistant, under IEC 61482, arc flash resistant clothing has various standards that separate it from fire-resistant clothing. Each arc-resistant garment must be designed in a way to allow the wearer to quickly remove the item, must always have long sleeves rather than short sleeves, and feature no exposed metal.

However, it’s not just the fabric that needs to be arc flash resistant, in order to provide the ultimate protection, garments should have every stitch, button, popper, zip and press-stud as flame resistant to provide enhanced and effective arc flash protection as well as durability.

When searching for appropriate arc flash PPE, safety experts should keep their eyes peeled for SafetyICON marking or equivalent, which allows workers to see what type of protection they offer, as well as suitable, arc resistant components, which have been safety approved and tested to withstand an arc flash incident. 

Making the right choice

There’s no disputing the danger posed by arc flash incidents, but to fully understand the protection offered by making the correct PPE choice here are five ways ProGARM arc flash PPE saves lives.

  1. Protects you from internal burns caused by the energy in an arc flash incident
  2. The garments instantly extinguish to avoid the additional risk of fire
  3. Thermsafe fastenings don’t melt or fail, meaning clothing can be safely removed
  4. The fabrics have inherent protection, so they offer as much protection one year later as they did on day one
  5. They are super-comfortable which means that users will wear it properly so allowing it to do its job. Our experts know that any PPE must make it easier for enable workers to do their job, not hinder it.