Electric Arc Protection at SPIE, a Multi-Technical Services Provider
SPIE is the independent European leader in multi-technical services delivering solutions to the building, plant and infrastructure sectors. Its customers include energy companies, public works departments, electric utilities and car manufacturers. Workplace health and safety is one of the company’s main priorities. The focus is on safety workwear that is truly effective and offers the highest level of class 2 protection against potentially fatal arc flash injuries. SPIE has placed its trust in Gore’s innovative PYRAD® by GORE-TEX LABS fabric technology. This technology provides maximum protection while offering an extremely lightweight and comfortable solution.

Working with electricity in any environment can be highly dangerous. SPIE technicians work at great heights on pylons supporting high-voltage overhead lines, maintain the electrical substations of regional network operators and install lighting or information systems on high ceilings. Operating giant data centres with their huge electricity consumption is no less dangerous. The work of these technicians can have potentially fatal consequences in environments in which they are at risk of exposure to arc flashes. Such incidents arise from electrical arching between two parts of an electrical system. They produce clouds of plasma reaching temperatures of 5,000°C, burning clothing and causing severe burns within milliseconds.

This is why workplace safety is such a major concern. “The company has two guiding principles,” explains Dr Oliver Polanz, head of HSEQ (health, safety, environment, quality) at SPIE Germany and Central Europe. “Firstly, optimising workplace health and safety through leadership, good discipline and a culture of change. Secondly, no compromising when it comes to workplace health and safety.” At SPIE, this also applies to their employees’ workwear: “In situations in which personal protective equipment needs to be worn, it should have an ergonomic fit and be as lightweight as possible,” says Oliver Polanz. “Wearer acceptance is incredibly important when it comes to protective clothing. People will only wear it, if they feel comfortable in it.” The fact that SPIE employees are given a say in health and safety issues is evident in the day-to-day workings of the company. The employees had become increasingly dissatisfied with their existing multinorm workwear. It had a poor ergonomic design and did not offer adequate protection in wet weather. Furthermore, it caused excessive sweating during strenuous work because of poor breathability. One of the outcomes was frequent workplace absences due to colds.

Lightweight: innovative arc rated waterproof garments

The company set about looking for a replacement for their existing foul weather workwear. They conducted a detailed analysis, held consultations with Iturri, their supplier, did their own market research and discussed the issue with leaders and works council representatives. Ultimately, a decision was made in favour of waterproof workwear equipped with the innovative GORE-TEX PYRAD® product technology. This technology is durably waterproof and windproof and thus ideally suited to outdoor work in wind and rain. In addition to the waterproof GORE-TEX membrane, it features two textile layers: the outer fabric with the PYRAD® by GORE-TEX LABS product technology and an inner lining. This innovative functional fabric means that GORE-TEX PYRAD® protective garments provide the highest level of class 2 electric arc protection. A porous insulating barrier forms on the lightweight outer fabric made of polyester or polyamide within milliseconds of sudden exposure to heat, or the moment at which an electric arc incident occurs. This barrier blocks the convective heat flow during arc exposure and keeps the wearer safe. All this happens “in real-time”. But what makes this solution more comfortable for the wearer? When wet or dry, this innovative material is up to 45% lighter than previously available flame retardant waterproof fabrics. This results in a lightweight garment that is still highly breathable, waterproof and windproof. This is essential because SPIE technicians work outdoors, whatever the weather. They have even been known to work on pylons in wind conditions reaching gale force six.

This fabric technology also allows for the manufacture of protective garments that feature extra benefits to comply with additional standards, such as those covering high visibility, chemical resistance and antistatic protection. There are also all sorts of ways in which the protective clothing can be tailored to suit individual needs. Consequently, SPIE conducted several wear trials before going ahead with procurement. This saw GORE-TEX PYRAD® foul weather garments being tested in strategic areas of the business and at various times of the year. Garment manufacturer Iturri supplied SPIE with various prototypes, each time taking into consideration the suggestions of the trial participants. This approach has certainly led to more wearer acceptance. The new protective garments were either leased or purchased, depending on the needs of the different areas of the company.

For everyday wear: lightweight protective workwear with class 2 electric arc protection

Ordinary foul weather garments do not always provide the level of protection SPIE employees need to go about their work. “There are many sectors in which customers specify that our technicians must wear clothing that complies with the requirements of class 2 electric arc protection,” explains Oliver Polanz. “These workers can find themselves pushed to their limits, especially on hot summer days or in exceptionally hot buildings.” In such situations too much heat can build up inside the garment. In other words, not all foul weather garments produced for protection against electric arc hazards are entirely suitable for everyday wear.

Having seen how satisfied their employees were with the GORE-TEX PYRAD® fabric technology, SPIE decided to try out the same technology in a set of lightweight protective garments intended for everyday wear: when waterproof protection is not required. The first step was to run a series of field tests with arc rated GORE PYRAD® garments – a version of the smart technology developed for lightweight protective clothing for daily use. This material is windproof and extremely breathable. It can be worn in comfort all day long, even in dry environments and on warmer days. This is because body warmth does not accumulate inside the garment, not even during physically strenuous activities.

The ingenious thing about this technology is that, for the first time, a special membrane, the lightweight PYRAD® by GORE-TEX LABS – consists of three components in a one ply solution: the outer shell, a wafer-thin non-flammable ePTFE membrane with an incorporated GORE® PYRAD® technology and a flame-retardant backer. As a consequence, the functional fabric feels thinner and is far more flexible than other options available in this sector. It weighs less than 330 g/m2 and is up to 50 percent lighter than previously available flame retardant textiles, offering significantly enhanced freedom of movement without compromising on protection.