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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Bobby Wesley Bush, Jr., June 21, 2000. Interview I-0088. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Developing new techniques in foam manufacturing to meet safety standards

Bush describes at length how Hickory Springs Manufacturing Company addressed increasing concern over the flammability of furniture, and hence foam, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He explains testing procedures for determining safety and offers an overview of how Hickory Springs experimented with different fire retardants in order to make sure their foam met safety codes and regulations. Emphasizing the company's innovative efforts, Bush boasts that Hickory Springs worked in conjunction with BASF Chemical in order to patent the use of melamine in foam production.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Bobby Wesley Bush, Jr., June 21, 2000. Interview I-0088. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KATHLEEN KEARNS:
You mentioned earlier that the company had been working on these things since the 60s. Can you give me some more information?
BOBBY BUSH:
No, we started pouring foam in the 60s, and there really were not a lot of regulations at that time. I wasn't there and can't really speak to where we were with TDI or anything, but it's been known for a lot of years that that's not something you want to take a bath in. But no, most of the real regulations started in the 80s. It's when EPA got real aggressive and started looking at hazardous materials and setting regulations, and that's been the bulk of it. About the same time that we started becoming aware that furniture flammability and therefore foam flammability was an issue that we needed to be dealing with, and that kind of goes along with the innovation theme as far as what we did. And there again, Graham was the innovator.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
On flammability issues?
BOBBY BUSH:
Yes.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Now Neil [Underdown] told me a little bit about this and told me about some mattresses in prisons catching fire.
BOBBY BUSH:
Down in Florida, yes.
KATHLEEN KEARNS:
Can you tell me more about that and what led to that being a concern?
BOBBY BUSH:
Well, foam burns. It's been pictured in articles and papers as solid gasoline, and that fact's been known. In fact I was just doing some research for another reason. March 27, 1979, Neil wrote a letter to all our location managers requesting that starting immediately, as soon as they received the supply, that a safety bulletin be attached to every delivery ticket, or every group of delivery tickets, one per customer, that went out, on a daily basis. If we delivered five loads to Broyhill this week, one a day, they got five safety bulletins. Just trying to inform our customers that there is an issue with heat and flame, and they should take caution in their plants and they should warn their customers. In 1975, the state of California adopted Technical Bulletin 117, which required that foam and fabric and some other products that go into upholstered furniture meet certain flammability requirements. Well, we look back at that today as being really a rather easy test to pass. Back then, I'm sure everybody was pulling their hair out. But there were quite a few liquid fire retardants that could be added to foam. It affected slightly the quality of the foam, but it did help it pass those small-scale tests, a small open-flame test, and later added-probably about 1980-a smoldering test for cigarettes. But it was a step in the right direction, but it really does not make furniture fireproof, nowhere close to it. I don't know if that's ever even a possibility, unless you're going to sit on concrete blocks, that you'd have fireproof furniture. But the idea in California was to make furniture that was harder to ignite. Of course it's a laboratory test and there are problems with that because that laboratory does not reflect real life fire situations, and the foam you're testing and the fabrics you're testing are pristine. They're perfectly clean, they came right out of the production line, they're not covered with cat hair and baby urine and cookie crumbs and cigarette ashes and everything else. That does affect the performance of any product. But anyway, Hickory Springs and the industry complied with that 1975 standard, and things have been rolling along pretty good. In 1980 there were several fires around Christmas time and several big name fires, big headline fires. Beverly Hills Supper Club. There was an MGM Grand fire in the early 80s. And all of a sudden, the furniture industry, and the foam industry in particular, were singled out. That's where this solid gasoline deal came from. And Hickory Springs along with probably a handful of other foam manufacturers-we certainly weren't the instigator, but we were in the ground-level and founding work-helped to form an association that at that time was called Flexible Polyurethane Foam Manufacturers' Association, FPFMA. It's since been shortened to PFA, Polyurethane Foam Association. But Hickory Springs was a founding member and we've been active members ever since. Doug [Sullivan] has served as technical director for a term or two. I've served as president on two different occasions. Probably of the twenty years' existence of the association, I've been on the board-I think I added it up the other day-ten years of those twenty years, in some capacity. I've served as president twice. I'm serving as past-president right now, for another two years. But that's been a real active association. It's been very helpful because even though we're competitors we have a lot of common causes with flammability, with environmental issues. Those are our two main issues. The group formed because of the flammability issues and coming up with a response and trying to set the record straight in a lot of cases on these poorly written, poorly researched articles. And then dealing with governmental bodies from a flammability standpoint, environmental standpoint. It's been a big help. It's been very, very beneficial. But I don't know where I was on the flammability issue. In the early 1980s, Graham started looking at some different ways to make foam fire retardant. We knew we had these liquid fire retardants that we could add, but you can only go so far with that. You can only pass that small open flame test. If somebody wanted a bigger fuel source as ignition, these foams did not work well and still don't. But Graham started actually playing-he may have looked at other things, but my first recollection is he took urea and he put it into the foam, solid urea, ground it up and put it in the foam. And it actually did quite well. It did not burn very well, took a lot more heat to get it going, but it gave the foam kind of a wet hand. It had its own humidity, and when it got kind of wet and sticky, it smelled like urine a little bit too, therefore urea. So somewhere along the line he found out that melamine would do the same thing without that sticky effect and that process was patented. Actually we worked in conjunction with BASF Chemical in developing it. We kind of took tangent routes. They worked with conventional polyols, we worked with some high molecular weights and [] process polyols and developed different products, different processes. And we have three or four patents and they have three or four patents and we now have the rights to use their patents and we're practicing our melamine process at several of our locations and making some fire retardant foams. CodeRed is one of the trade names that we use. That's kind of become the standard of the industry. It's not the best foam in the world. It's been around since 1984 although it's in its second generation, but I'm really surprised that nothing else has come along, and I think there's work being done now, and I doubt that CodeRed as we know it will continue to exist for too many more years.