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Fire-resistant clothing a hot item in the Oil Patch

From left, oilfield worker Nick Leonard of Maine shops for flame-resistant jeans and a shirt as Steven Huseth of Idaho looks on at Home of Economy in Williston, N.D., on Monday, July 14, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – When Jim Bacon and Bryan Johnson came to North Dakota to see what the oil boom was all about, one thing they saw was a need for fire-resistant clothing.

Bacon, a former sales manager from Spearfish, S.D., and Johnson, a retired Los Angeles police officer, started fire-resistant clothing – also known as FR clothing – three days a week from a trailer in Watford City.

By the third day, the trailer would be empty, Bacon said. In June 2012, they moved into a building on Main Street devoted to FR clothing and accessories, called simply The FR Store.

“We sell everything a guy would need to work in the oilfield: jeans, shirts, zip-up hoodies, coveralls, bibs, rain gear and outer gear,” he said.

FR clothing has become a hot commodity in the Bakken, where thousands of oilfield workers are required to wear it on the job.

For oilfield worker George Abdilnour of Williston, a quality product trumps price, even if it means spending more than $60 each for a shirt and a pair of jeans.

“I’ve done my research. It’s what everybody recommends: Carhartt,” he said as he perused the merchandise at Home of Economy in Williston.

Tom Kiddle, director of specialized sales at Carhartt, said there are two types of FR clothing. With inherent fabric, the yarn or thread is flame resistant, and it’s generally more expensive and has less breathability. Treated fabric (cotton) has been rolled through a chemical treatment that is added to the fabric, which provides a permanent source of flame resistance, he said.

Nomex is a flame-resistant fiber invented by DuPont in 1967 that doesn’t melt or drip, and provides industrial workers with protection from intense heat and flames and electric arc.

It’s inherently flame resistant, meaning the properties can’t be washed or worn away, the company said. In hazardous scenarios, Nomex “forms a tough, protective char, staying supple until it cools.”

“A lot of customers don’t have any idea what they’re buying,” Kiddle said. “There are more cotton garments than inherent garments – lower cost, greater comfort and a wider selection of fabrics are available.”

Michigan-based Carhartt is one of the top three flame resistant retailers in the U.S., Kiddle said. The company was making flame resistant clothing as early as 1995, but it didn’t really take off until 1998 when the utility industry requested its workers to wear FR products, followed by oil and gas companies.

Kiddle said all FR clothing has to meet different standards. In the oil and gas world, the main standard is National Fire Protection Association 2112, which is aimed at protecting workers from flash fire exposure and injury, according to the NFPA website.

He said the market exploded when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration expected workers to meet 2112 despite its lack of a standard. Up until then, workers wore conventional jeans and sleeveless T-shirts, not “FR head to toe,” as the oil and gas industry now requires.

Kiddle said his company was the first to transition from the standard FR uniform of twill pants and coveralls to creating a line of clothing that both men and women would feel comfortable wearing after work.

 “We want to make products that are relevant for the workforce,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to develop new technologies for the oil and gas market – ability, lightweight, breathability, water-resistant products.”

Carhartt markets to distributors and retailers, with North Dakota-based Home of Economy snagging the No. 1 retailer spot for its six locations.

But it’s the recently expanded Williston Carhartt store that’s the crown jewel for FR sales. President Wade Pearson said the Minot store may have more FR clothing, however, the sales in Williston not only surpass its sister stores but also make it one of the top FR stores in the country.

“FR is the biggest thing going in that store. It didn’t really exist four or five years ago. It’s hugely important to us, we really caught it at the right time,” Pearson said.

He compares the “explosive growth” to riding a huge wave, with sales for FR clothing up 12 percent in the last year, “400 times up from 2008.”

Barb Forsberg, a 23-year veteran of the Williston store, said when she took over as manager in 2008 “we were prepared for everything that we didn’t know was going to happen. We had no clue (about the boom).”

Six years later, the store’s top three FR brands are Carhartt, Wrangler and Ariat, respectively. Other brands include Richlu, Pacific and Maine, Cinch and Dickies. Long-sleeve crew shirts, jeans and rain gear are the top sellers during road construction season, and in the winter, bib overalls, jackets and coveralls are the most sought-after items, Forsberg said.

Prices start at about $50 for FR shirts and climb to more than $200 for outerwear, “I think we do a good job with pricing and availability. … We’re as low as we can be all the time without violating the manufacturer’s agreement. It is quite expensive stuff, so you can get some sticker shock,” Pearson said.

At Bacon’s Watford City store, the No. 1 selling brand is Rasco, which Bacon said is less expensive than Carhartt and Key. FR clothing sales make up 80 to 85 percent of the store’s total sales.

Bacon said “out-the-door prices” include jeans priced at $50, Henley’s at $30, and pullover hoodies and zip-up hoodies at $90 and $70, respectively.

The partners have expanded their offerings to include safety glasses, helmets, gloves and boots. Two and a half years after they arrived in Watford City, the city has added thousands of residents, and with them, hotels, restaurants and retail.

Johnson said there are now “probably five places to buy FR,” but “competition is good.”

“Before guys couldn’t be picky, now they have more choices. The thing about FR clothing is that new guys are always coming here, constant turnover. When the pie gets bigger, you need more pieces,” he said.