Handling treated fabrics

This page looks at handling and making up fabrics treated with fire-resistant, crease-resistant and other fabric finishes. You will need to look at the web pages on REACH and chemicals, as well as the information on this web page :

Fabrics are often treated with various chemical finishes to give or enhance specific properties, for example crease-resistance, fire-resistance and anti-static properties.  From time to time workers develop health problems when handling and using fabrics treated in this way, the most common being skin disorders and respiratory tract irritation.

Health problems

Workers handling fabrics or exposed to dust from machining, sewing and cutting processes/operations are at risk of skin irritation.  Some workers have also developed eye, nose and throat irritation.  In a very small number of cases, sensitisation to specific chemicals occurs.  The effects recorded are probably due to skin abrasion, the effects of irritant chemicals, and/or a combination of both abrasive and chemical effects.

Skin abrasion is caused by fabrics that are rough to handle.  This roughness could be due to the nature of the fibres used in the fabric, by chemical treatments or by the singeing of fabrics that contain synthetic fibres (this can make fibre ends brittle).  The most common irritant chemical implicated is formaldehyde, but other chemicals and dyestuffs have also caused problems.

Many fire-resistant and crease-resistant formulations are based on urea-formaldehyde resins.  Unreacted formaldehyde present in these resins may be carried in the dust that is created by machining or may be released from the treated textile in gaseous form.  Skin abrasion removes some of its natural resistance and permits such free formaldehyde or other irritant chemicals to cause chemical irritation. Gaseous formaldehyde can cause eye, nose and throat irritation in some people at comparatively low concentrations.

Workplace exposure limit

The current workplace exposure limit (WEL) for formaldehyde is two parts per million (2 ppm), time weighted average over eight hours. The short-term limit (averaged over ten minutes) is 2 ppm. A worker's exposure to formaldehyde should not exceed this WEL but the exposure should be as low as is reasonably practicable and in any case below the WEL.


Suppliers have a duty to make sure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the chemicals that they supply are safe and have no health risks when properly used, handled, processed, stored or transported.  They must provide customers with a description of the hazards involved and safety precautions necessary to overcome those hazards.  This advice usually comes in the form of product safety data sheets and users are advised always to request copies from suppliers.

Advice given in these safety data sheets may form the basis for training and instruction given to employees.

Safe labelling and storage

Containers of formaldehyde resins should be properly labelled, stored in an area surrounded by a low sill to retain leaks and spills and protected from damage by passing traffic. They should also be stored separately from any catalysts, hardeners or sources of heat.

Dealing with spillages

Deal with spillages and leaks promptly.  Make suitable supplies of decontaminating materials available and tell employees how to deal with them safely.

Provide for the decontamination of all protective clothing and equipment used in the clean up.

Waste disposal

Label empty drums and containers properly and store them in a safe place until they can be taken away by an authorised contractor for proper disposal.  Alternatively, make suitable arrangements with the supplier for the collection of empty containers and drums.

Finishers and suppliers of fabrics

Finishers and suppliers of fabrics should:

  • get full health and safety information from the suppliers of treatments
  • make sure the information covers the safe application of the treatment and any possible problems in the subsequent use of the fabric
  • choose treatments that are least likely to cause subsequent health problems and that are suitable for the fabric concerned
  • check that all the chemicals used in finishing are compatible with each other and are not likely to cause undesirable effects in combination
  • adhere to the supplier's instructions for applying treatments.  Don't deviate from these instructions without considering how it might affect health or safety
  • supply information to subsequent users about the treatment(s) used on fabrics and any precautions they should take to avoid health problems
  • co-operate with users in investigating and eliminating any health problems that are reported

Users of fabrics

All employers have a duty to prevent or control exposure of employees to hazardous substances.  This includes exposure to hazardous substances when machining and handling fabrics.

Where exposure is liable to occur, the employer needs to carry out an assessment to establish the extent of the risk and nature of the control measures that are necessary. Employers should first obtain information from fabric suppliers about any properties of the fabrics they use or any treatments the fabrics have had that may cause health problems.  However, the aim should be to use fabrics that do not cause health problems when they are used or handled.  This should be possible by careful liaison with fabric suppliers, by quality control of received fabrics and by investigating immediately any signs of health problems amongst workers.  If problems do occur, the first recourse should be to refer back to the fabric supplier, if necessary returning the fabric for remedial treatment (eg washing and/or re-curing).

If it is not possible to eliminate the problems completely, then the assessment should look at control measures designed to reduce skin contact with fabric or dust and to prevent or control inhalation of dust or any gaseous compounds produced from the fabric.  Pay attention to:

  • storage
  • handling and manufacturing methods
  • the regular cleaning of the workroom
  • ventilation

Using lightweight gloves, eg cotton or chamois may reduce skin contact and irritation.. Review the assessment if there are problems later when using the fabrics.

Having made the assessment, employers should make any arrangements they need to, to make sure the control and other measures identified are properly implemented.

Specific measures for fabrics finished with treatments based on urea-formaldehyde resins

Consider the measures listed above where formaldehyde release is likely; however, they are no substitute for removing the problem at source.

Where you know a fabric/finish combination is liable to cause problems, and there is no suitable alternative, the fabric should be washed before despatch to remove any free un-reacted resin and any acidic residues.

Tests for the release of formaldehyde should be carried out either by the supplier or the user as part of the quality control procedures.  Test methods are available to monitor both the unbound 'free' formaldehyde remaining in the fabric and the capacity of the fabric to release formaldehyde into the atmosphere.  Quality control standards should be agreed relating to concentrations of 'free' formaldehyde in the fabric that will ensure there are no ill effects amongst workers using the fabric.

  • Fabrics should be stored unwrapped in well-ventilated areas, allowing dispersal of any formaldehyde released.
  • Quantities of fabric in the workroom should be kept to the lowest level practicable.
  • Remove dust regularly from workroom fittings and fixtures using an industrial vacuum cleaner.
  • Provide good general ventilation in workrooms where fabrics are handled.
  • Where dust from machining operations is a problem, consider providing extraction systems at the point where the dust is created, eg sewing heads.
  • Provide good general ventilation in pressing and ironing areas.

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Updated 2021-05-12