Up until the last several years, the word "comfortable" was very unlikely to be associated with the FR garments most were familiar with. For too long, it was generally accepted that you could not have both comfort and the level of protection necessary for hazardous working environments. But in the last decade, some fabric manufacturers have challenged that assumption and brought increasingly comfortable options to the marketplace. Comfort has risen as the next frontier in PPE garment development as more and more safety industry professionals recognize that comfort is an essential factor in providing proper protection. Read on to learn about the factors that contribute to garment comfort, why it's so important, and how you can ensure increased comfort for your team.
What Is Comfort?
There are six key elements by which we measure comfort in FR garments:
The air permeability of a fabric, or the ability for air to pass through it, has been a key breakthrough in creating more comfortable FR fabrics. Garments made with less breathable material trap heat close to the body and insulate the wearer, which might be desirable in very cold working conditions, but in most cases, we're looking to reduce the risk of heat stress. Breathability in fabric allows the wearer's body to regulate itself the way it's meant to, letting their body heat radiate out through the fabric.
The effect of a garment's color on comfort is technically one of perception: studies have shown no distinguishable difference in the heat absorption of darker fabrics to lighter fabrics, but workers tend to appreciate lighter-colored shirts when they're working in the sun a lot. Even if a darker shirt isn't actually making them physically hotter, they might still feel hotter, so taking it into account is still recommended.
- Moisture-Wicking Ability
The ability of a fabric to move sweat from the body, through the fabric, and then let it evaporate into the surrounding air is its moisture-wicking ability. Similarly to breathability, moisture-wicking fabrics allow the body to do its job of temperature regulation by expelling heat, so fabrics that work with this process rather than against it will also greatly increase the wearer's comfort.
- Texture and Weight
The rough and heavy FR fabrics you used to know are getting lighter and softer. Innovations in fiber combinations and weaving techniques allow fabric manufacturers like us to balance protection and fabric weight, like in our Tecasafe® Plus, which offers increased protection levels while providing a lower fabric weight and a softer touch. More and more options are reaching the market that offer the look and feel of non-FR clothing while still offering the same or better protection.
FR garment fit and sizing are large parts of a garment's comfort level. Even if a garment is constructed with the softest, lightest, most breathable fabric, if it is ill-fitting or the wrong size it's less likely to be worn correctly. Garment manufacturers work closely with safety managers to conduct wear trials to help ensure that garments have a comfortable fit. Wear trials are especially key because FR sizing tends to be different from non-FR sizing, so it's important for workers to try garments on in a few different sizes to make sure they end up in a uniform they can safely and comfortably wear on the job.
Flexibility is a newer innovation in FR fabrics, and with true stretch fabrics on the horizon, comfort in PPE workwear is about to go to a whole other level. Stretch in fabric allows for a greater range of motion and for garments to be more closely fitted. When your job requires crawling into small spaces or climbing utility poles, having a garment that flexes with your movements can increase your comfort and confidence in performing your duties without having to adjust what you're wearing. Stretch also helps reduce waste by giving garment manufacturers a little breathing room in sizing and keeping workers in one garment size that allows for a little variation in their own size (like after the holidays). At TenCate Protective Fabrics, we are very excited to see how stretch fabric will contribute to overall FR garment comfort and help push the standards for safety and comfort even further forward.
Why Comfort Is Integral to Protection
Now that we've broken down the components of comfort, let's talk about why comfort is so important in FR garments. It's pretty simple: you're only as safe as you are comfortable. A garment can be the most protective against all possible risks, but if a wearer makes an unsanctioned alteration in the name of comfort, that level of protection is immediately compromised. Have you ever seen a firefighter roll their sleeves up before entering a burning building? Absolutely not. They might be more comfortable and have a little more range of motion, but now their arms are unprotected in a highly dangerous situation, where every bit of protection counts. Luckily, FR garments are moving away from the rigid, hot, and heavy construction of the past and more towards the look and feel of athleisure, so wearers can enjoy the same (and improved) levels of protection in much greater comfort. Removing the temptation to wear FR garments in a noncompliant fashion is the next frontier in FR garment evolution.
How to Achieve Maximum Comfort in PPE Garments
Safety managers have a lot to focus on in creating a zero-injury workplace safety culture, but increased comfort in PPE garments can help maintain compliance by ensuring workers are wearing their PPE correctly. We believe wearers deserve to have protective workwear they like wearing, and will wear correctly, not just protective workwear they tolerate. That's why TenCate Protective Fabrics has put such an emphasis in our own product development on achieving greater comfort in FR garments. Fabric and component manufacturers, garment manufacturers, and safety managers all have a part to play in serving the end-user wearer with the most protective, most comfortable FR garments that offer breathability, moisture management, a light weight, a soft touch, a good fit, and flexibility. Wear trials are where all these parties come together to consider end-user feedback, which guides both the PPE selection process and the development of future products. Conducting effective wear trials is a critical piece in ensuring your team's maximum comfort and safety today, and in the future.
Comfort is a trend that is here to stay in protective workwear. As you look ahead to what your next PPE solution will look and feel like, we invite you to download our Global Trend Report for our full analysis of what’s coming down the pipeline in the PPE workwear industry.