A “smartly dressed” employee has traditionally been associated with wearing work apparel that attractively displays a company’s cohesive brand and image. But in today’s industrial work environments, that definition has been broadened to include employees who wear company workwear designed to help protect them against a wide range of safety threats — from those that could occur while performing job tasks to others that could be posed by outside intruders entering the workplace.

Technological advances in fabrics as well as improvements in style and comfort have helped facilitate the use of uniforms. A unified look, particularly one that utilizes specific colors and personalized logos, helps companies identify who belongs or does not belong within a particular industrial setting. Furthermore, uniforms can be customized to signify specific employee responsibilities, making it easier for managers to quickly identify someone who could be outside their assigned work area and, therefore, unaware of latent hazards authorized personnel have been trained to recognize.

So, directly or indirectly, employee uniforms can provide a wide range of protective measures to keep employees safe at work.

Policy: spell out goals

In the past, an enhanced business image and overall cost savings were the primary incentives for employers choosing a managed uniform program for their businesses. But today, considerations include a variety of other key factors aimed at ensuring safety against direct or indirect threats to workers. Assessing these safety issues begins with establishing a company policy that spells out the specific goals of a safety-conscious employee uniform program.

Three central questions should be asked as part of this process: 1) Is the uniform program intended to protect employees from potential on-the-job hazards? 2) Is it aimed at protecting employees from outside threats? Or, 3) Will such a program help managers differentiate who should or should not be within potentially threatening work environments?

As part of this hazard assessment/policy-setting process, one individual should be designated to be responsible for overseeing the employee uniform program. This person might consider researching OSHA’s Web site (www.osha.gov) for information related to employee uniforms/personal protective equipment (PPE). A good educational starting point would be to become familiar with OSHA Section 1910, which provides a “general description and discussion of the levels of protection and protective gear.”

In addition, the person responsible for a company’s uniform program should be familiar with all National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that apply to protective clothing, including NFPA 70E, 1977, 1991 and 1992. Additional support in understanding these regulations and standards can likely be obtained from a national uniform service provider that has protective apparel experts on staff.

Within budget

As part of the policy-setting assessment process, a budget should be established for your employee uniform program. Major uniform suppliers offer employee uniform programs to fit a wide range of budgets by providing rental, lease and purchase options.

Rental — A rental program is turnkey in nature and is the most popular type of managed uniform program. The uniform supplier is responsible for providing all the required clothing, for picking up soiled clothes each week, and for returning freshly laundered and finished garments. If any apparel is worn out or damaged, the supplier makes repairs or provides replacement garments as needed. Typically, all the workwear and managed services come at a weekly charge per employee. Because there is no up-front investment required, the renting option is often the ideal choice for many businesses.

Lease — Some companies wish to receive the benefits of a full-service rental program but prefer a lower cost structure. In such instances, leasing uniforms is an appropriate alternative. With a lease program, companies get all the services of a rental program, like required repairs and replacements when needed and overall program management, but employees are responsible for laundering their own work garments. This results in a lower weekly charge per employee than a rental program.

Purchase — Meanwhile, as a final option, a company may wish to make a single, up-front investment and purchase their uniforms outright and manage their entire program themselves. In this case, companies are responsible for all the cleaning and maintenance of the garments. They must oversee and monitor the conditions of all uniforms on an ongoing basis, mandating or making any required repairs, tracking clothing inventories, making purchases for new employees and replacing apparel as it become damaged or ill-fitting.

Sizing matters

With any uniform program, it’s important that all employees be measured accurately for their uniforms. An ill-fitting uniform in and of itself can be dangerous. A pair of pants that is too lengthy, for example, could cause the wearer to trip; an oversized shirt could inadvertently become entangled in machinery.

Beyond their protective and proper fitting qualities, all uniforms should be manufactured with durable material resistant to rips, tears and punctures. Construction should be of such quality that allows workers the freedom of movement necessary to perform their required tasks — and do so comfortably, regardless of temperature and humidity conditions.

Many of today’s employee uniforms feature scientifically developed fabrics that offer various levels of protection in addition to comfort. These fabrics are generally made from a combination of natural and synthetic fibers such as cotton and polyester or nylon. While natural fibers can offer optimum absorbency and coolness, synthetics can provide greater durability, color retention and resist shrinkage and abrasions.

What constitutes an employee uniform will ultimately be dictated by the industrial setting. The uniform could simply consist of shirts and pants manufactured with materials that may have the ability to “wick away” moisture from the body, or it could also include jackets and coveralls with insulation or lining such as Gore-Tex® or fleece.

Come a long way

Today’s work clothing has come a long way from the protective uniforms of yesteryear. In addition to their protective qualities, modern uniforms made with the latest fabrics are far more breathable, more comfortable and in style. These attributes — along with the economic flexibility of renting, leasing or purchasing — are among the reasons why the Uniform & Textile Service Association (UTSA) has found that up to 33 million people currently wear uniforms to work each day and that their numbers are increasing by about 1.2 million each year.

Today, it’s uniforms that help protect workers against potential electrical and chemical injuries. As technological improvements in fabrics continue, tomorrow it’ll be apparel that routinely safeguards workers against the sun’s harmful UV rays or establishes protective barriers against liquid-borne pathogens. “Smart dressers” in industrial settings will be increasingly safer.

Sidebar: Dirty laundry

No matter what type of uniform program a company selects, how employee uniforms will be laundered is a key consideration. If a work task exposes the uniform to potentially harmful particles of material, laundering should likely be done at a location other than the wearer’s home. To avoid taking any potential toxins home on uniforms, the use of an industrial launderer uniform provider is advised.