The Perception and Science of Comfort
Comfort science in relation to PPE has made significant progress within this past decade. For those end users who work with dangerious job hazards, such as thermal electrical arc, they no longer have to equate safety garment provision with feelings of discomfort. So, what has changed and developed within PPE?
What is Comfort?
When the human body feels uncomfortable we are very aware of this, however, if we are feeling comfortable then most of the time we don't really notice. The word ‘comfort’ has a number of meanings, around a lack of discomfort or pain, or more positively in terms of a feeling of ease or contentment. While it’s possible to describe and explain the science of comfort, it is nevertheless a subjective experience. After all, some of us like the feeling of being out in all weathers or taking a cold shower, while others prefer being cocooned in warmth. For the human body to function properly, the temperature of our vital organs, i.e. the brain, heart, lungs and liver, has to remain at approximately 37°C at all times. Comfort has both a physical and a psychological or emotional element and they all interact. In other words, comfort combines human physiology and perception with physics and environment. Comfort is real but can best be understood as both objective science and subjective experience.
The Need for Protection and Comfort
However it is defined, comfort is absolutely necessary for safety at work, especially when that work involves extreme conditions and/or specific risks such as working outdoors in foul weather or other factors such as fire or electrical hazards. Laws relating to safety at work cover elements such as appropriate equipment and PPE. For arc protection, for example, choosing Class 1 or Class 2 protection will be dependent on the type and level of electrical fault arc risk. Employers must consider whether an electric fault arc is a potential hazard and also whether there is an enhanced risk in the work environment.
This first step in obtaining the correct PPE will ensure protection, but historically, it has come at a price: comfort. In the past, to make PPE safe enough, garments have often been heavy, bulky, restricting movement, hot and frequently uncomfortable. However, recent changes in research have focused on the experience of wearers of PPE. Comfort scientists and designers have been hard at work looking at ways to balance safety with wearer satisfaction.
Importance of Breathability
For issues such as heat and cold, comfort science has much to tell us. Our bodies naturally adapt by sweating or shivering when we become too hot or too cold. Our bodies can rise above a normal temperature due to hard physical activity or external factors like the weather. In these circumstances our circulation is increased and blood is pumped to the surface of the body. This triggers perspiration which acts to cool the body. This works well as long as the sweat generated has somewhere to go. If it can’t evaporate due to the nature of the clothing, workers stay hot and can feel uncomfortable. This not only results in loss of concentration but can lead to confusion, dizziness, even unconsciousness.
At the other extreme, being too cold leads to shivering, as our body’s way to warm us up. Again, cognitive and physical affects can be observed if we become too cold: loss of attention and poor muscle performance to name two. Where cold is concerned, the main requirements for PPE clothing are adequate insulation, windproofness and waterproofness. So, choosing clothing which incorporates wicking to take sweat away from the body and also protect from the effects of cold is essential consideration for comfort in relation to temperature.
Flexibility and Freedom of Movement
A garment that is flexible and fits well is more comfortable and should leave the worker unaware that they are being protected. In stressful and dangerous work situations, end users don’t want to be thinking about their PPE being too tight or too loose, nor should there be any opportunity for clothing to rub, chafe or for clothing parts to get caught in items such as loose cables within the work setting. Alarmingly, it is known that badly fitting or restrictive PPE tends to lead to workers wearing it incorrectly or discarding it altogether, making the situation more dangerous. Technical developments in PPE for electrical arc incidents must of course initially focus on safety, by considering the protective qualities of the fabric, such as multi-layering. Recent innovations have improved comfort through a more comprehensive range of sizes and greater suppleness and movement in the fabrics used. This means better ergonomics that allow for smoother, easier freedom of movement. A more mobile worker is better protected and a safe worker is more productive.
How weight reduction impacts on comfort
Along side fit and mobility, weight is a very significant aspect of comfortable PPE. Major progress have been made recently in reducing the weight of garments designed for protection. Textiles which are functional for Class2 arc fault protection can be extremely heavy weighing up to 650 g/m2, resulting in a final weight of a jacket of even more than 2 kilograms. Here again, feedback from wearers who have in the past found this kind of weight impedes comfort and therefore efficiency, has led to research into how lighter fabrics can deliver high-quality protection. PYRAD® by GORE-TEX LABS technology is now able to make garments that are 50% lighter than previously available. As an added benefit, these garments are easier to look after, being machine washable and durable.
Getting comfort right
Workers in hazardous situations should not be impeded by the clothes they are wearing. Wise employers will buy the best PPE and ensure they are worn properly by consulting with and listening to wearers at all stages of the process. Safety should never be compromised, but the fine balancing act of protection versus comfort no longer needs to be in tension. As well as complying with stringent safety standards, employers can now offer workers lighter, less restrictive and breathable clothing. The implications and benefits are manifold. A comfortable worker is one who makes better decisions, works longer and more productively. They are less likely to lose concentration or to make mistakes that could lead to danger or to jobs being interrupted
W. L. Gore & Associates is a global materials science company dedicated to transforming industries and improving lives. Since 1958, Gore has solved complex technical challenges in demanding environments — from outer space to the world’s highest peaks to the inner workings of the human body. With more than 12,000 Associates and a strong, team-oriented culture, Gore generates annual revenues of $4.5 billion. gore.com