Imagine a brick. And then imagine a tissue. When it comes to durability — defined in general terms as “permanence by virtue of the power to resist stress or force” — which of these two items would you trust more?

That’s easy. A brick is sturdier than a piece of tissue and would be considered more durable. But when determining long-term durability of the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by firefighters, electrical employees and other men and women in high-risk occupations, is making a judgment so simple?

What makes a garment durable?
When purchasing PPE apparel, safety managers must understand all the factors related to the durability of a garment before making their selection. Durable goods are items that do not wear out quickly — in other words, goods that deliver utility over time rather than being used up completely after just one use. Most goods purchased by consumers—from microwaves to bicycles to computers — are considered durable goods to at least some degree.

Clothing lasts for a relatively long time and is therefore considered a durable good. For garments, durability refers to the service life as well as to the elements that cause them to be no longer wearable.

When purchasing PPE apparel, consider what aspects related to the durability of a garment are important to you as a safety manager, and, even more significantly, what aspects are important to the employees who will be wearing these garments?

Following are seven key factors to consider when judging a garment’s durability.

1. Garment construction: It’s important to find out how well a garment is designed and constructed. To do this, first determine if the seams are strong or if they pull apart easily. Seam strength is particularly important for fire protection and arc flash protection to ensure that the body is not exposed in any way. Also determine how well the garment resists tears on the body and sleeves. Knit clothing, for example, generally resists tears better than woven garments do.

2. Surface abrasion: Abrasion refers to the wearing away of any part of a material when rubbed against another surface. When surface abrasion happens to a garment, its protective properties can become compromised, especially in topically treated garments. Additionally, surface abrasion in clothing can produce those annoying little “pills” caused by loose fibers that gather and cling to the fabric, causing garments to look old and worn. For durability, be sure to purchase clothing that can withstand rubbing against skin and other materials.

3. Edge abrasion: The edges of pants or woven shirts take a beating in the dryer. For example, the edges of a navy blue pair of pants can turn a lighter color from edge abrasion. This deterioration can put clothing out of service, so check to see if a garment can withstand edge abrasion in addition to surface abrasion.

4. Colorfastness: When a darkcolored, 100-percent cotton T-shirt is washed a certain number of times, it eventually fades and begins to look ratty. Prolonged exposure to the sun will also fade clothing. In order to have a long life, fabric must be sufficiently colorfast to withstand the stress applied by both sunlight and washing machines.

5. Flame resistance: In many dangerous jobs, flame resistance (FR) in clothing is of the utmost importance. For FR clothing to be durable, the garment must be inherently flame resistant, and the FR protection must be a permanent part of the fabric. If flame retardant materials are applied after the garment is made, the FR will typically be temporary and hence, not durable.

6. Stain release: Stain release qualities should also be permanent rather than applied to the fabric after manufacturing. The ability to release stains, especially in a shirt, is important for obvious reasons. If, for example, mustard is dropped on a light blue cotton shirt, the shirt will be ruined if the stains don’t wash out. Before purchasing a garment, be sure the fabric can release stains.

7. Odor resistance: Because the chemicals in polyester can bond with the chemicals produced through perspiration, polyester garments will start to smell after 15 to 20 washings. For a garment to be truly durable, it’s vital to ensure that the fabric has the long-term ability to resist odors — no one wants to wear a smelly shirt.

To ensure the long-term durability of garments for employees in high-risk occupations, safety managers should investigate whether the PPE apparel meets the criteria detailed in this article. You don’t want to think you’re buying a brick and end up with a tissue instead.