How much do you know about Fire Retardant fabric?

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Fire Retardant (FR) fabrics are imperative nowadays for individuals working in extraordinary working environments, ones that particularly involve the risk of being exposed to high temperatures or the presence of flames. Electricians, fire-fighters, workers in a steel or chemical factory are usually the ones who utilize these fabrics, amongst others.

FR fabrics are made from materials that protect the person wearing them and enables them to perform their duties without the threat of any physical injuries. But how much do you know about the history of FR fabrics and the materials used in order to manufacture these life-saving clothes? Let’s delve into the past and see how FR fabrics have evolved over time to reach their current protection or safety level.

The ancient Chinese civilization is considered to have used a solution of vinegar and an alum over wooden surfaces, before covering them in clay in order to reduce the spreading of fire. The ancient Egyptians, however, used to soak the reed and grass they used as covers for their rooftops in sea water, thus utilizing the salts as fire retardant materials. Though the use of FR materials has been around since the BCs, the need for mass production of these materials was felt with the dawn of the industrial era.

Paris of the 1600s witnessed several fires erupting in theatres across the city. An effort was done in order to assure the safety of the structures and to restore the confidence of art-lovers who so dearly headed to the theatres almost every week. In this regard, a mixture of plaster of Paris and clay was utilized to fireproof the buildings with the hopes of preventing unfortunate happenings in future.

In the early 1820s, French chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac proved that a mixture of ammonium phosphate, ammonium chloride, and borax increased the fire resistivity of textiles, thus giving a boost to the FR fabric manufacturing industry of that time.

With the advancements in the field of chemistry in the 20th century and production units opening up in every corner of the world, further research was conducted in the field of FR fabric production to meet the challenges faced. The production of the organophosphorus compound Tetrakis(hydroxymethyl) phosphonium chloride (THPC) in the 1950s served as a major contributor in the FR fabric manufacturing industry.

The compound, when applied to plastics, paper, cotton, furniture, and paints, increased the fire resistivity of the materials. Later on, with the production of compounds like polybenzimidazole (PBI), and flame-resistant materials such as aramids (meta-aramids and para-aramids); the FR fabric production industry was provided with improved materials to manufacture safer fireproof textiles.

According to a conference paper titled as ‘History of Fire Retardants for Textiles’, written by Giraud and others in 2016, fireproof fabric manufacturers have two options at their disposal in order to produce non-flammable fabrics. The first choice centers on the selection of materials with fire resistance properties. They state that mineral fibers have limited applications, i.e. their use as reinforcement materials, whereas they have high mechanical properties and are inherently non-combustible.

However, this particular kind of FR material is not used for extensive fireproofing of materials, owing to its high cost of production, and lack of comfort. Same is the case with thermostable fibers, which have issues of cost, aging, and little comfort. However, FR fibers containing chemically modified polymers or fillers go easy on the cost, comfort, and production, but they cannot assure fire resistance on their own, and have to be combined with some other material in order to make them work.

The second choice caters to adding a surface treatment to materials intended to be made fireproof. This process has been divided into two further sub-categories, namely: the non-reactive surface treatment, and the reactive surface treatment. The non-reactive treatment is based on the use of phosphoric or nitrogenous compounds and is generally considered inexpensive. The reactive treatment involves the use of wash-resistant materials. The implementation of the former sub-category is considered complex, and changes in the mechanical properties of textiles are observed over time following the application of the reactive surface treatment.

Across the globe, a number of safety standards are in practice in order to make sure the use of certified fireproof fabrics in workplaces. In 1973, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) came up with CFR 1910.132, the general safety standard for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), outlining the need of maintaining safe-to-use equipment in specific working conditions in order to make sure that no harm is done to the health of the employees while they are performing their professional duties.

The employer is responsible for assuring the maintenance, sanitation, and adequacy of such equipment. Likewise, a number of British Standards (BS) also deal with the fire handling capabilities of various fabrics, whereas M1 refers to the European standard for FR fabrics used in Europe.

Almost all fabrics produced today are manufactured with the idea of making them fireproof to a certain extent. The advancement reached by the fireproof clothing material manufacturing industry is the result of decades of scientific labor. The modern FR fabric production focuses on the comfort aspect of the materials they provide while guaranteeing no compromises on the flame retardant aspect of the fabric, therefore incorporating the latest trends and technology in their production.

The current nonflammable fabrics are simply not restricted to being available in one or two colours, as was the case in the past, but can be found in a wide range of eye-catching, and attractive colours, produced while keeping in view the requirements of the workplace and the organization in particular.

As we enter into a newer era of science and technology, with the sophistication ever increasing, the need of continuing the trend of producing flameproof fabrics that can deal with the needs of the modern-day workplaces is always there. Further research and development is required in the area of fire retardant fabric manufacturing and supplying to assure the safety and well-being of those utilizing these materials to create an equally trouble-free environment for all.

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