Manning an oil rig while handling flammable substances, maintaining utility lines with electrical power surging through the wires and working in manufacturing facilities with fire-spewing machines are some of the most dangerous jobs in modern history. The threat of risk, however, has not stopped global demand for oil, electricity or manufactured goods. But it has prompted us to develop ways to conduct some of the most dangerous work safer.
These jobs come with a lengthy list of procedures to prevent and handle accidents, and anyone in these industries is familiar with the abbreviated term PPE – personal protective equipment. It’s the barrier that keeps workers safe from the harmful elements they come in contact with every day. Of course, everyone hopes that the PPE will never have to actually perform, but in case it does, its reliability is crucial.
Bulwark Protective Apparel, the leading maker of flame-resistant clothing in North America, knows what’s at risk when it comes to PPE, which is why the company keeps nearly all of its manufacturing processes in house.
“We are somewhat unique for an apparel company in that most apparel companies outsource their manufacturing,” explains Stan Jewell, vice president and general manger. “But flame resistant clothing is more than just apparel. It’s protective equipment and it’s safety equipment. We feel it’s critical to have traceability throughout our whole network. If there is a shirt or coverall that an end user at Exxon Mobil is wearing, we can look at their tag and tell you the exact history all the way back to the bale of cotton it came from.”
It’s something that companies in the three sectors Bulwark serves – oil and gas, electrical utilities and manufacturing – are demanding more and more. If an accident occurs, for instance, companies want to know that the PPE performed as its specifications said it would. Jewell says having information regarding the materials and testing used in each product has avoided many a lawsuit.
Having the right PPE is also something that the government is imposing more stringently. Jewell, who monitors industry trends of its customer core, says that during Democratic administrations, such as the one in Washington, D.C., today, OSHA tends to take a more active role in enforcing compliance of its safety procedures. The right PPE is one way companies stay within OSHA’s good graces.
“The responsibility of Bulwark is that flame resistant apparel carrying our label will meet the performance requirements of the specifications and standards as stated on the garment labels and in our product literature,” the company says. “As long as our laundry instructions are followed, the flame resistance of Bulwark garments is guaranteed for the life of the garment.”
Designed for continuous wear, Bulwark’s products meet the requirements specified in American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International Standard F2302-08 for labeling protective clothing as heat and flame resistant. They also meet the performance requirements of National Fire Protection Association Standard 70E; Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces, 2009 Edition; ASTM Standard F1506-02a; and Flame Resistant Materials for Wearing Apparel for Use by Electrical Workers Exposed to Momentary Electric Arc and Related Thermal Hazards. Because these fabrics are flame resistant, they are also acceptable under the OSHA Final Rule 1910.269, which lays out guidelines related to electric power generation, transmission and distribution.
Equipment that protects and meets government standards is what Bulwark’s customers are looking for. Maintaining its strength in meeting the customers’ needs will become even more crucial as Bulwark plans to expand into new markets.
“We have been the market leader in North America for a while, and about 95 percent of our revenue comes from the United States and Canada,” Jewell says. “But we are focused on global expansion, as well. We’ve opened a new office in Dubai and have new distribution there to capitalize on the oil and gas market in the Middle East and in northern Africa. We’re also working to expand in Latin America, as well. Those are two things that will help in our global growth, which is a big part of our plan.”
In order to make sure it delivers on its customer’s expectations in current and new markets, Bulwark maintains autonomy of its manufacturing process but also leverages the resources of its parent company, VF Corp.
The Perfect Parent
VF Corp. defines itself as a lifestyle apparel company. Its portfolio consists of a number of fashion brands such as 7 For All Mankind, Wrangler, Lee and Splendid. It also owns some of the most recognized brands in outdoor clothing and sportswear such as The North Face, Vans, Jansport and Nautica. Bulwark falls within the parent company’s VF Imagewear Inc., which encompasses all of its workforce brands such as Red Kap, the leader in industrial work wear.
Jewell explains that being part of a larger organization comes with advantages that many of its competitors lack. The supply chain, for instance, is one network for the whole organization. Instead of each company keeping individual vendor lists and leveraging buying power as one entity – VF Corp. maintains one network for all of its companies. It also uses one global distribution network. Also, companies typically share manufacturing space with one or two sister companies that require similar processes, machines and capabilities. Employees are cross-trained as much as possible to work for each company.
“It would be hard to have the sourcing, distribution and manufacturing capabilities that we do if we were just Bulwark,” Jewell says. “But because we have the backing of a multi-billion dollar organization, we have access to a much larger network.”
These shared capabilities allows Bulwark total control of most of its processes and the ability to remain flexible to short-term market fluctuations – two things that have been key as Bulwark’s client base grows, especially those in the oil and gas sectors.
“The reason the oil and gas sector is growing so much is because the level of exploration in North America is significantly higher in the last couple of years,” Jewell says. “I track it weekly by looking at the number of oil rigs operating in the United States, a statistic that is readily available. It’s a good leading indication of what the industry is doing.”
As the oil and gas industry has grown, Bulwark has been able to capture the new market share. “We went from about a mid-20 percent share of the market five years ago, to about a high-30s percent of the market share today,” Jewell explains. “Owning our own manufacturing facility has allowed us to capitalize on better than projected market growth and given us the flexibility to meet those demands.” In the past two years, largely spurred by Bulwark’s fast growth, the VF Corp. factories that support Bulwark’s operations have added 600 new jobs. At its manufacturing facilities in Mexico and Honduras, Bulwark manufactures 95 percent of its products.
Quality Is a Must
To get to the finished product, Bulwark has developed innovative flame-resistant technology used in a variety of its trademarked fabrics, such as the Nomex fabric – a lightweight, breathable and inherently flame-resistant fabric that’s durable enough for the petrochemical and refinery workforce. The company’s Excel FR fabric is a 100 percent cotton and 100 percent flame resistant fabric ideal for foundries, flame cutting and welding, as well as electrical utility workers and those in the chemical, oil, gas and petrochemical industries.
Other products, such as the Cool Touch 2 is a hazard risk category 2-compliant fabric that provides flame-resistant protection in a lightweight blended fabric that is both soft and durable. Bulwark’s wide array of fabrics can be manipulated into a variety of forms, such as coveralls, pants, shirts, sweatshirts and vests.
For the few fabrics that it outsources, the company calls on preferred providers such as PyroSafe by antex, which provides Bulwark with flame-resistant fabric, a small but important slice of Bulwark’s business, and one that it couldn’t leave to fate. Bulwark began working with PyroSafe a couple of years ago.
“They are our preferred knit supplier,” Jewell explains. “Their innovative capabilities and their quality product are preferable to our previous supplier.”
In short, PyroSafe, as well as the other suppliers Bulwark works with, must meet the same standards the company sets for itself. Bulwark’s facilities, testing procedures and products are all UL-certified. During peaks, the company calls on its three overflow manufacturers who are also UL-certified. Bulwark also respects the key differences between manufacturing fashion apparel versus safety apparel, such as stamping numbers to all flame-resistant materials so they can be easily identified.
Other factors affecting quality assurance happen outside of the actual manufacturing process. In addition to in-house skills and remaining flexible, Jewell says the third leg to Bulwark’s success is innovation in fabric and finishes, as well as garment construction. The company also provides modifications to standard products, such as clothing marked with an employee’s or company’s name. Thirty-five percent of the company’s products are customized, non-standard products.
To provide the innovation that its customers seek, Bulwark keeps a close ear to what the industries are saying, even getting involved in the standard-setting process. Some of the company’s leaders sit on regulatory boards and the company is a constant presence at conferences and symposiums that discuss PPE. It enables Bulwark to be on the first wave of new standards and keep its customers in compliance as well.
“We put a lot of resources into growing our technical abilities,” Jewell says. “Things don’t change fast in safety procedures, but it is a constant conversation and it’s important for us to know what’s coming down the pipe because there is a lead time to develop our products and we want to have products available when new rules are enacted.”