Protective products in industrial environments are close cousins to those used by the military, firefighters and police.
What does the phrase “high-tech protective textile products” suggest? Firefighter gear? Bulletproof vests? Clothing that resists arc, flame and impact? One might think of all of those things. Products that protect those who protect us are at the forefront of our awareness.
But there are others—many others—that protect those who work in manufacturing environments and other industrial settings. Protective apparel and gear used in industrial environments are the workhorses that keep people who manufacture everyday products safe—and often they are made from the same fabrics used in products for the military, firefighters and police.
Cool, comfortable and FR
The needs of the end users—for both military and commercial markets—drive fiber and fabric manufacturers to come up with new ways to increase product comfort and performance. In the FR (fire retardant) market, many recent advancements are focused on comfort.
“Up until the last few years industry was focused mostly on passing the FR standards and arc ratings, and comfort was kind of an afterthought,” says Steve Smith, vice president, sales and marketing for SSM Industries Inc., Spring City, Tenn. “Now comfort is at the forefront because meeting those safety levels are just the cost of entry now. It’s expected.”
Wicking properties, antimicrobial properties and a soft hand have long been important factors in performance textiles for clothing, and those garments have been used by the military in desert climates to keep soldiers more comfortable. But the use of clothing made with synthetic fibers worn by soldiers also presented a danger. In 2006 the U.S. Marine Corps banned the use of synthetic performance-type garments containing polyester and nylon outside forward-operating bases in Iraq because when the fabrics are exposed to extreme heat or flames they melt to the skin. As a result, the military turned to the fiber and yarn industry to create products that were cool and comfortable—and fire retardant. “That’s when the push started—to develop different blends of fibers that would perform like performance fabrics but not melt to the skin,” Smith says.
The comfort and performance of fabrics begin at the fiber level. Through its supply chains, ICF Mercantile LLC in Fort Lee, N.J., creates technical fiber solutions for textile applications. Viscont® FR filament rayon, produced by Glanzstoff Industries, is the only filament rayon product in the market that is flame retardant. “Development started roughly five years ago and the product has gone through a variety of improvements since that time,” says Dave Ronner, owner and president of ICF. “It works well in conjunction with other fibers that might not offer as much comfort, such as some of the aramids.” Viscont offers the attributes of rayon because it’s dyeable, comfortable and exhibits good moisture management. Due to its comfort and FR qualities, the fiber is used in production of soft-shell jackets used by workers in metallurgy, the oil and gas industry, military and firefighting.
On the spun fiber side, ICF distributes PyroTex® FR, a stable acrylic fiber with a Limiting Oxygen Index (LOI) of 43. (LOI is a small-scale test for characterizing the flammability tendency of materials.) Nomex®, the meta-aramid developed by DuPont™ in the early 1960s that has led the industry in flame-resistant material, has an LOI in the low 30s. PyroTex FR is used in parallel applications, as well as heavier industrial applications. Ronner points out that one of the fiber’s attributes is its shrinkage stability. “PyroTex FR is also dyeable, exhibits moisture management, and has good comfort level, with spun yarn characteristics.”
One industry regulation change spurred innovations in FR clothing for industrial workers in relation to cotton undershirts that used to be allowed under FR layers for electrical utility workers. “In the NFPA [National Fire Protection Agency] 70E in the ATPV level where you get an arc rating, it used to be allowable to use a cotton undershirt with an FR layer over it but now the undershirt needs to be FR as well to count towards the ATPV rating,” Smith says. In response, SSM Industries designed a flame-resistant cotton knit—Pro-CFR®—that has high arc ratings, is comfortable and can be dyed. Pro-CFR is treated with antimicrobials and incorporates TransDRY®, a product from Cotton Inc. that wicks away moisture. “FR knits are gaining traction in the market versus wovens because an FR knit, if constructed properly, can have a much higher arc rating for its weight,” Smith says.
To drive innovation, Smith says the military peruses outdoor retailer shows to see what types of performance gear are available in the non-FR market and are bringing those back to the fiber and yarn industry to see if they can be made with FR properties. “It’s a big challenge to [the] industry when they do that, but it’s exciting because new technologies and ideas come out of it when they challenge us to those types of feats,” he says.
Other innovations are commercially driven. Patrick Yarn Mill Inc. develops yarns specifically for its clients in the industrial markets, says Gilbert Patrick, president of Patrick Yarns in Kings Mountain, N.C. However, some of the technology has crossed into military markets as well. For FR applications, Patrick Yarns spins or incorporates performance fibers and/or filaments used to manufacture heat-resistant gloves and sleeves for industrial workers. The company incorporates blends of meta aramid fibers, such as Conex®, Aramet®, Arawin®; or other heat-resistant fibers, such as PBI, para-aramids, Basofil®, Rhoyvl, modacrylic, OPF, Pyron® or PyroTex.
“Everybody in the industry knows of these high-profile performance fibers,” Patrick says. “However, we have found it is the blending of the fibers or filaments along with other fibers and cores that enables us to engineer unique heat-resistant yarns. For instance we use a blend of FR rayon, Twaron® and Pyron® fibers for demanding heat protection applications. We also spin yarns utilizing blends of modacrylic fibers and cellulosic fibers for use in fabrics to meet NPFA 70E arc flash requirements. This product or fabric is designed to char and not break open with the energy of an electrical flash, without igniting, thus protecting the wearer from second degree burns.”
A cut above
Innovations in fiber and yarn construction that complement traditional para- and meta-aramid fabrics are driving advancements in cut- and abrasion-resistant protective products. Patrick Yarns introduced a core/sheath construction that utilizes Twaron—a heat-resistant para-aramid fiber—spun around ceramic cores for protective gloves and sleeves. “We began using this technology a few years ago,” Patrick says. “Depending upon the construction of the fabric, these yarns usually double the cut protection of the fabric compared to equal weights of 100-percent para-aramid fabrics, as well as increased customer savings.”
Patrick Yarns introduced its X13™ line of protective yarns in 2012,used for protective apparel, including gloves, sleeves, hosiery and jackets that need to meet challenging performance levels, including ANSI Level 4 cut protection standards. “This innovation doubles the cut protection of comparable weights of para-aramid fabrics and increases the abrasion resistance by 200 to 300 percent,” Patrick says.
“Through testing we also found that products made with X13 transfer body heat 3 to 5 times faster than products made of 100-percent para-aramid, cotton and/or leather. Because of the higher abrasion resistance, increased cut performance and the joules of body heat it conducts, employees are more prone to wear the protection, translating into not only safety for workers, but also savings on Workers’ Comp insurance.”
For less demanding cut-resistant applications, the company makes X-14™, a line of protective yarns in which high-performance nylon fibers are incorporated into the yarn structure instead of para-aramid fibers. “This combination is more economical and still equals or surpasses the cut-resistance of 100-percent aramid products of equal weight,” Patrick says.
To reach a Level 5 rating for cut resistance, SSM Industries has incorporated a steel core into some of its cut-resistant fabrics. The company wraps Kevlar® around a steel core to achieve the rating, while maintaining a breathable, low-weight fabric. The company is currently wear-trialing a steel-core mesh it developed. “To have a nice, breathable fabric with a cut level of 5 is unheard of before in a mesh,” Smith says. “It’s getting rave reviews.”