The Fabric of Safety

Better PPE for Safer and More Comfortable Work Environments

Word is out that the demand for and evolution of personal protection equipment (PPE) is about to surge. In this feature, we take a brief look at especially why the protective fabrics market is growing, how this growth is spurring exciting new innovation, and how manufacturers go about fabricating and marketing their products.

Estimated to grow to more than three times its current size over the next seven years, this is a market that no industry leader can afford to ignore.

The general verdict on the question that surrounds the PPE market’s phenomenal growth trend appears to hinge on the ever-increasing rise in fossil fuel consumption, and on the growing construction, fertilizer and other industries. With more consumers relying on petroleum-based ingredients and other potentially hazardous chemicals across numerous sectors, the need for chemical-resistant protective gear increases. As a result, the demand for comfort and wearability also increases as more people spend more time wearing protective fabrics apparel.

Naturally, the real challenge for developers, designers, and manufacturers of such fabrics is to provide as much comfort as possible while ensuring optimal task performance – all while keeping costs down.

To ensure that employees working in hazardous positions are protected in the best way possible – and that no corners are cut in the process – organizations such as the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) all support global efforts toward creating safer working environments. The standards implemented by these groups determine the minimum safety levels required for the optimal protection, health and safety of employees. This includes standards for protection against respiratory, hearing, eye, hand and skin as well as head and foot exposure to any possible harmful materials, chemical or event – including dangers such as working at any height above ground level or in low light.

Each of the above categories has its own list of safety measures, equipment, and garments that must, by and large, be provided and paid for by the employer, in adherence to a mandate passed by OSHA on 15 May 2008. All guidelines and regulations first and foremost ensure the immediate safety and comfort of the wearer. They also protect the interests of the employer, as time lost in recovery from injury is minimized. It is from exactly this point that the infinite need for the innovation of affordable, protective fabric springs.

In order to meet this ever-growing market need, scientists and research and development teams are in a race to come up with the most practical, durable solutions that are not only protective and comfortable but also economical. These materials have to protect workers from hazardous activities such as welding, taking x-rays, painting, working in extreme temperatures and environments like firefighting, being in contact with chemicals like those who work in the petroleum, pesticide and pharmaceutical industries, and much more.

According to a number of experts interviewed by Safety and Health Magazine last year, two of the biggest issues in existing protective apparel are that gloves need to be greatly improved in order to meet the demand of industrial, chemical and cut requirements, and that protective gear needs to become lighter. According to Ron Henion, Director of Product Development at HexArmor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a great need for the improvement of the cut-resistance of gloves exists, together with a demand for improved manual dexterity allowance. In addition to the durability of apparel, new science around improved wearability means that heavy-duty fabrics do not have to be synonymous with heavyweight fabrics anymore.

In fact, the goal of today’s intelligent fabrics appears to be in defying the traditional weight versus toughness ratio. As such, the manufacturing processes involved in creating safety apparel are becoming an increasing feat of technology. Traditionally, there are a number of aspects that are particularly important in the construction of safety garments – apart from durability and comfort. One of these is seams. Experts at Lakeland, a manufacturer of high-tech protective clothing, advise that particular care should be taken when it comes to the solidity and strength of seams, ensuring that they are not prone to ripping or penetration. Care should also be taken with regard to how garments age as seams can become worn and can lose flexibility, rendering some safety garments unfit for their purpose.

Popular fabrics in the field currently still include Polybenzimidazole (PBI), a synthetic fibre with an exceptionally high combustion point that makes it ideal for use in space, racing and firefighting suits as well as protective welding gear. In addition, it is nearly as comfortable as cotton with the difference in the two fibres’ moisture retention rates being only three percent. The fibre’s composition allows manufacturers to fabricate PBIs on standard textile equipment, making it a relatively easy material to fabricate.

Another favoured protective fibre is aramid, another synthetic fabric with an exceptionally high combustion point. It is used in everything from bulletproof vests to repairing the hulls of ships and even as an alternative to asbestos. The fabric was first introduced in the 1960s and further improved on when the global safety apparel giant, DuPont, introduced its meta-aramid, Nomex®. The company started marketing the product in 1967, claiming it to be “three times stronger and offering twice the heat performance” of regular aramid. The product is lightweight and handles like any fabric, making protective garment construction far easier than usual. The company was also the first to launch a para-aramid fabric, sold as Kevlar®. This fabric is said to also be cut-resistant and exceptionally durable. Today, many manufacturers around the world work with both PBI and aramid fibres to create protective clothing.

As for more recent innovation and intelligent fabrics, phys.org reported earlier this year on a self-regulating fabric developed by scientists at the University of Maryland. The fabric is said to auto-measure the wearer’s skin moisture, allowing body heat to escape when too hot and conversely locking warmth in with a louver effect when the wearer’s body temperature drops and the skin becomes drier. This effect is referred to as “dynamic gating of infrared radiation,” or regulating body heat. The effect is achieved by enveloping polymer threads in carbon nanotubes – comparable to microscopic carbon stockings.

The good news for protective gear would be that thanks to the work of Zhang et al, it could soon be possible to create PPE garments with localized, automatic heat control that is entirely self-regulating. This holds huge potential for protective clothing worn in very hot environments where every bit of cooling means energy savings and less fatigue for the wearer.

As with any standard garment range, there are many players involved in creating a single piece of protective wear. Research and development teams, independent researchers, fabric technologists, designers, and more combine forces to create the ultimate piece of safety apparel. As with standard clothing ranges, PPE collections also undergo a detailed planning and standardized sizing process before final size charts are determined, manufacturing schedules and controls are set up and production commences.

As one would expect, thorough testing ensures that each garment performs as well as expected – especially when people’s lives, and livelihoods, are at stake. Testing should typically include rigorous investigations performed by qualified experts in dedicated laboratories where items are exposed to the wear, hazardous chemicals and situations that intended wearers would usually face when performing their duties. With its global reach, companies like Intertek pride themselves on performing the most rigorous testing on PPE apparel – also known as soft goods – enabling clients to receive third-party reports that adhere to the standards of the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI).

As the PPE market grows, global contributors increasingly gather to network and present their latest offerings and innovations to an international audience. This year is no different. In fact, 2019 is packed with informative, international events that reach from Germany to India and beyond to help guide industry leaders in selecting the correct equipment and strategies to suit their unique operations. Two of these events are specifically focussed on occupational health and safety.

In July, Bogotá, Colombia will host South America’s Feria Internacional de Seguridad, a fair aimed at hosting health and safety professionals. From 5-8 November, the bi-annual A+A international trade forum for occupational safety, security, and health at work will take place in Düsseldorf, Germany. Its organizers promise that the event will once again be the largest of its kind, with contributors travelling from as far afield as Portugal, Pakistan, and Sweden. Attendees can also opt to join a PPE Conference as well as a symposium for Occupational Hygiene in the Fire Service.

With such enormous development clearly evident in the field of safety equipment and apparel, we are very excited to watch the field develop even further. It is indeed nothing short of refreshing to see what lengths science, research, and development are going to answer the needs of those hardworking people on the frontlines of industry and civil protection. Here’s to the long-overdue renaissance of modern safety equipment.