Uniforms: Comfort and protection adds up to worker safety
March 1, 2007
Times change, but the basic purpose of employee uniforms has remained the same over the centuries. Whether worn by Caesar’s Roman legions or by 21st century workers, employee uniforms are worn to provide their wearers the best protection available without sacrificing mobility.
Of course, uniforms have come a long way since the armor and leather outfits worn by Caesar’s troops. Thanks to advancements in fabric technology, today’s uniforms offer protection against many environmental and work-related threats that workers would have been vulnerable to just a few decades ago. Moreover, they are markedly more comfortable and fashionable to wear than their predecessors.
Present-day uniforms, for example, can routinely repel distracting stains, ward off clammy moisture, reduce or prevent shocking static, allow bothersome sweat to evaporate, and make their wearers safely visible within otherwise adverse environments. And uniforms made with highly sophisticated combinations of fibers can now protect their wearers from debilitating electrical burns or the disastrous effects of inadvertent chemical and acid spills.
An evolutionary combinationThe multi-dimensional protection offered by today’s uniforms can be largely traced to an evolutionary combination of cotton, a natural fiber, and polyester, a synthetic that first became available for commercial use in 1953. When teamed for use as a single, blended fabric for uniforms, cotton contributes to their comfortable feel, while polyester brings durability, cleanliness and color steadfastness into the equation.
The polyester fibers used in today’s uniforms are decades removed â€” both literally and figuratively â€” from their original commercialized version. Polyester is now produced in significantly shorter strands that are spun and carded like natural fibers, resulting in a structure that’s similar to cotton â€” all with the aim of providing enhanced, overall comfort for workers. Meanwhile, the cotton fibers used in uniforms that provide highly specialized protective attributes â€” such as protection against flames and acids â€” have also undergone a transformation. The cotton fibers used in such uniforms are now routinely treated at the molecular level to transform them into what are widely viewed as “smart fibers.”
Generally speaking, many of today’s uniforms feature a combination of cotton and polyester fibers so that the positive attributes of each work together to provide the maximum in protection and comfort for their wearers. It is for this reason that 35/65 cotton/polyester blends are particularly popular with many companies and their workers.
A good illustrationA good illustration of how uniforms have evolved over the decades in order to help provide the best possible protection for workers is flame-resistant (FR) garments with “smart fibers.” FR uniforms are manufactured today to be almost immediately self-extinguishing upon removal of an ignition source. Keep in mind that FR garments do not prevent an electrical burn from occurring, but do prevent the burning from continuing, which is the cause of the worst type of worker injuries â€” those that often cause grotesque disfigurations requiring multiple surgeries.
How does an FR garment prevent burning from continuing? The specially treated and combined FR fibers require as much as 28 percent oxygen in order to burn â€” that’s 7 percent more than the 21 percent found in air. Therefore, FR fabric does not continue to burn after exposure to an open flame or electric arc. By comparison, cotton, by itself, requires only 14 percent oxygen to burn â€” or 7 percent less than what’s found in air. As a result, everyday clothing made from basic cotton that’s exposed to an electric arc flame has sufficient oxygen to combust and continue burning.
In the past, most FR fabrics have been long on protection but short on comfort. However, that has changed in recent years and will continue to change as new, lighter-weight fabric blends will increase FR protection and a wearer’s comfort level. FR apparel already rivals everyday workwear in styling, and it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between everyday workwear and protective garments made with “smart fiber” fabrics.
Personal protectionIncidentally, FR uniforms are not just for highly specialized workers in unique or specialized industries. Industry estimates show that as many as 10 percent of every company’s workforce may be candidates for FR apparel. This approximation is partially based on the safety standard created by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) known as 70E. NFPA 70E requires anyone who works on or near energized circuits that could be an arc source to wear proper levels of FR clothing for personal protection. Ultimately, that means everyone from electricians to maintenance workers should be wearing FR garments for their personal protection.
Anyone who might be tempted to dismiss their company’s potential need for FR garments should take note of government statistics which show that approximately 24,000 workers suffer debilitating burns each year as the result of electric arc flashes igniting their clothing and continuing to burn. That works out to about three workers being injured every single day on a 24/7 basis.
Given such sobering numbers, anyone charged with implementing safety programs within their company should seriously weigh just how immune they might be to electrical-related accidents â€” not only because of the toll they can take on human suffering but because of the staggering, overall costs involved. Industry and government reports show that a worker loses an average of four days of work recuperating from a heat burn, while the expense of treating an electrical burn, including surgeries and rehabilitation sessions, can quickly surpass $1 million. Is it any wonder that the government has reported that although only 5 percent of all workplace injuries are electrically related, they account for a hefty 40 percent of all workers’ compensation expenditures?
Protecting workersFrom electrical burns to a multitude of distracting and threatening environmental conditions, today’s uniforms help to protect workers against a wide range of latent safety threats. And looking ahead, they will play an even greater role in worker safety. Research currently underway is pointing to the imminent introduction of uniforms that will help to shield their wearers against damaging ultra-violet rays and, still others, that will act as protective barriers against threatening, microscopic pathogens. Even military uniforms will be offering improved protection for their wearers.
Fibers are now also being developed that will be bullet-resistant, able to dispense medicine to wounds, and transform sleeves into hardened casts to protect broken bones. Now that’s a uniform that could even make a Roman Emperor sit up and take notice.
SIDEBAR: Todayâ€™s uniâ€™s are more comfyToday’s uniforms are engineered to be better than ever before, as they are less constricting, and soils are much more easily removed. They even provide an increased level of safety for employees.
For the past few years, 65 percent cotton/35 percent polyester blends have been popular as uniform fabrics. Compared with 100 percent cotton, these blends offer durability, better color retention and soil release properties that can enable them to last two to three times longer. However, blends are perceived to be less breathable than 100 percent cotton.
New textiles combine the advantages of both all-cotton fabrics and cotton/poly blends. Known as hydrophilic fabrics, they have become popular among athletes and outdoor enthusiasts.
The newest hydrophilic fabrics offer a cotton-like feel as they move perspiration away from the skin, enhancing comfort for active workers and providing odor resistance. Wicking properties also enhance safety for employees who work indoors in hot environments and outdoors in cold weather, or who work in conditions where the temperature can fluctuate between hot and cold. Color retention, durability, soil release and wrinkle resistance of hydrophilic fabrics are as good as or better than 65/35 blends.
SIDEBAR: What can UTSA do for you?The Uniform and Textile Service Association (www.utsa.com) is an international trade organization representing textile supply and service companies. UTSA members provide, clean and maintain reusable textile products, such as uniforms, sheets, table linen, shop and print towels, floor mats, mops and other items to thousands of businesses in all industries. These industries include light, heavy and high-tech manufacturing; healthcare; restaurants; service, retail, construction and transportation industries; and institutions.
UTSA’s mission is to provide “specialized information and educational programs and work to influence governmental policies affecting the industry, in order to enhance the business success of members and increase recognition of the industry.” Pursuant to this mission, UTSA conducts lobbying efforts when necessary. The focus of these efforts is the maintenance of an appropriate regulatory environment in which its members may grow and prosper.
SIDEBAR: Customers love a man in uniformA recent Uniform & Textile Services Association (UTSA) study conducted by JD Powers & Associates shows unequivocally that customers prefer uniforms. The study found that, when choosing a company from which to buy, both individual consumers and business-to-business buyers preferred to use companies that had uniformed employees over those that did not.