Protective Clothing and the Quest for Improved Performance

Feb. 1, 2008
For years, traditional protective clothing coveralls, aprons, shirts, jackets and pants focused mostly on heat- and chemical-resistant qualities. Comfort

For years, traditional protective clothing — coveralls, aprons, shirts, jackets and pants — focused mostly on heat- and chemical-resistant qualities. Comfort took a back seat to protection, and wearing such clothing, particularly for workers at petrochemical facilities in the southern states or in foundries, was similar to being in a sauna for 8 or 10 hours at a time. Outdoor workers in colder climates didn't have it much better, adding layer upon layer of cotton, wool and synthetics to try to stay warm.

The focus eventually shifted for many manufacturers of protective fabrics and clothing. They had the protection factors — chemical, water, heat and flame resistance - locked down, so they began to examine comfort factors, like fabric weight, fabric texture, seaming, stretch and protection from heat and cold. As protective clothing became more comfortable, a new wrinkle was added: performance.

“We've got the protection factors down,” says Lisa Roessler, thermal product manager for DuPont Personal Protection. “Now, comfort is the entry ticket to do business. Garments have to be meet functionality, comfort, performance and cost requirements.”

The end result is the introduction of new fabrics and garments that rival — and even surpass — those worn by professional athletes.

“With all the sweat, grit and muscle they put into their work every day, skilled trades people are really the ‘occupational athletes’ of the construction, industrial and safety world,” says Tom Votel, president and CEO of Ergodyne, which has begun manufacturing a line called CORE Performance Workwear.

Randy Kates, general manager of the Kimberly-Clark Professional Safety Business since 2003, agrees that the mindset at many companies has changed. Employees no longer are perceived as worker bees, but as “professional industrial athletes.” Kates says Kimberly-Clark has been asking end-users: “What changed in the work environment to make this happen?”

To help answer that question, Kimberly-Clark Professional recently launched what it referred to internally as “Project Runway.” A team of industrial designers, Kimberly-Clark Professional personnel and a couture clothing designer was assembled to research and review current Kimberly-Clark Professional and competitors' products and come up with ideas for new products. The goal, says Kates, was to make protective clothing more wearable and attractive.

Kates attributes part of the renewed emphasis on appropriate protective clothing to a business decision on the part of employers: injuries and healthcare costs are expensive, and a number of jobs have been lost due to outsourcing. Taken together, this means that fewer workers are doing more and have to be protected as well as highly productive.

Workers Demand Performance

In the past, says Votel, “protective clothing was too hot, too uncomfortable, too tricky to figure out. It makes sense that [workers are] demanding better, more technically advanced protective clothing to optimize safety and performance in their arena: the job site.”

Workers who are fatigued — a condition that can be caused or heightened by being too hot or cold — run a greater risk of not being as alert and, potentially, suffering injuries as a result, says Votel. Other workers move from indoor climates to outdoor climates, and have to be able to layer up or layer down quickly.

Multi-layer systems like CORE are built on advanced materials and treatments, which help workers manage moisture, increase their visibility, control temperature, reduce ultraviolet exposure and impede bacterial growth.

Wicking features move moisture away from the body, helping the clothing dry faster, better regulating body temperature and, therefore, making workers more comfortable and safe on the job, says Votel. The clothing line features lightweight stretch fabric, multi-panel design, raglan sleeves, flat seam construction and tagless labels that allow for complete range of movement.

Votel particularly is gleeful about a small, tagless label on the tail of the shirts that says, “Just say no to crack.” “Nobody wants to see crack,” he jokes.

Fibers and Fabrics

Protective clothing only is as good as the fabrics from which it is constructed, and even the fibers in those fabrics are coming under closer scrutiny in terms of comfort and wearability.

Glen Raven Inc. opened it doors in 1880 as a small cotton mill in Glen Raven, N.C. The company now is a global leader in performance fabrics.

Hal Bates, director of marketing at Glen Raven Inc., says the way the company always has approached the market “is by looking and seeing what's needed out there,” continuously working on research and development of new fibers and fabrics.

According to Bates, the focus is on comfort and durability when developing new fabrics. “Customers need comfort, value and something that supports their corporate image,” he says. Corporate image means “fabric that looks better longer,” meaning uniforms and garments continue to look new after a number of washings.

“With solution-dyed garments, color and flame-resistance are built in all the way through the fiber,” says Bates, who compares solution-dyed fibers to a carrot, with the color and protection factor going all the way through to the core, versus a radish, where the color stops at the outer layer.

Although protection and appearance are important, they only are valuable if a worker properly wears the clothing.

“I've seen situations where a worker's forearms were burned because he turned a long-sleeved garment into a short-sleeved garment because he wanted to stay cool,” says Bates.

Visible Versus Invisible

During the research process for Project Runway, Kimberly-Clark's Donna McPherson, senior category manager for the KLEENGUARD brand, met some interesting “fashion designers,” who came up with creative alterations to their protective clothing.

One worker created a “Star Trek”-ish uniform for himself, adding wings to the shoulders, cutting off the sleeves, venting the body and wrapping tape around his waist for a tighter fit. Looking at a photo of the worker, McPherson points out that not only is the worker not protected from hazards, but that “the green tape actually is very expensive and costs more than the garment.”

When researching new designs, Kimberly-Clark Professional decided to focus its efforts on three areas: continuing and improving the high level of protection; increasing movement through the back and arms while bringing the garment closer to the body; and making protective clothing more stylish. “These are not your dad's coveralls,” says McPherson.

The Granddaddy

DuPont's Tyvek fiber is more than 40 years old, which makes it the granddaddy of current “modern” barrier protection materials. Not content to sit in the rocking chair, DuPont Personal Protection continues to study, test, redesign and update its materials and garment designs.

The company recently surveyed 1,000 end users, asking them about Tyvek and their current needs for protective fabrics and garments. What end users said they wanted, according to Norfleet Smith, channel manager for DuPont Personal Protection, was comfort, fit and durability in addition to protection. “We're redesigning for comfort and fit,” he adds, “and that also plays a part in durability, since garments that fit better wear better.”

End user input led to DuPont increasing shoulder size and lengthening the zipper to make it easier to get into the garments. “You almost got sweaty putting them on,” Smith admits of the previous generation of protective garments. Waistbands were added and areas prone to stress were reinforced against tears and blowouts.

Workers in industries diverse as pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals were asked to choose the garments that fit well and felt good. “They happened to be the new design,” says Smith.

The same type of end-user research was applied to a new fabric for protective clothing in cleanrooms, where the goal not only is to protect workers, but also the process or product, says Oshok Chetty, marketing manager for cleanrooms at DuPont Personal Protection.

DuPont partnered with a major pharmaceutical manufacturer to improve protective garments for its cleanroom workers. Discussions and testing led to the development of Suprel LS, a fabric with a high degree of protection that is soft to the touch and offers breathability. “The workers said it was like wearing pajamas,” says Chetty of garments made of the new high-technology fabric, which has more than 20 new manufacturing patents.

DuPont Personal Protection also has worked with researchers at North Carolina State Unviversity to test garments made of Protera, a fabric that meets NFPA 70E Category 2 requirements and the protection won't wash or wear away, says DuPont's Roessler. Test subjects were asked to wear the garments, then walk up and down steps, climb ladders and bend and stretch. The garments also were examined for durability: could they be washed 50 to 100 times and not only maintain their protection factors, but also their appearance and functionality?

Next up for protective fiber, fabric and clothing manufacturers, are garments that protect from multiple hazards. For example, first responders “don't know what they're walking into,” says Roessler, “so garments need to provide chemical resistance and flame resistance at the same time.”

The trend toward garments that look more like street wear seems to be ongoing, something Tom Votel is banking on.

“Remember when all workers looked like Buddy Holly when they were wearing protective eyewear?” Votel asks. “Just as gloves, protective eyewear and other PPE products have been transformed over the past decade, personal protective apparel is now following suit. Workers are telling us it's no longer acceptable to work in a cotton T-shirt that stays damp and uncomfortable all day. And employers are learning that workers who are more comfortable in any weather condition are more focused and productive.”

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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