How technological innovation will transform every aspect of our lives, both positively and negatively, is a subject for intense debate and media speculation.
For safety practitioners, much of the current focus is around digital technologies, from wearable tech solutions that can monitor worker status and sense potential hazards, to virtual reality training for high-risk environments.
But digital technologies are only one part of the story. Developments in materials science have been at the forefront of worker protection for decades and will continue to push the boundaries, particularly in industrial workwear and personal protective equipment (PPE).
A 2016 market report by Global Industry Analysts Inc identified ‘technology innovations, improvements in product features and quality, and development of innovative, high-performance materials’ as key drivers in the growth of the worldwide PPE market. The report specifically pointed to innovation in new resistant materials as a key spur to growth in protective clothing and gloves.
The latest high-performance materials used in industrial workwear and PPE offer better chemical, mechanical, impact and thermal protection, as well as greater comfort and ergonomic design. This in turn can boost compliance, productivity and performance because workers are more likely to use the PPE, are less restricted, have more flexible movement and tend to get less tired.
“Protective apparel can sometimes be quite uncomfortable to wear and the reality is that comfort equals compliance for industrial end users,” explains Rodney Taylor, D3O’s global sales and marketing manager for industrial PPE.
“Material providers and brands are trying to provide products that are more comfortable without sacrificing the performance they’re intended to offer.”
Materials Science and innovation
Bringing innovative materials science to PPE is a priority for manufacturers and brands. With gloves, this ranges from new liquid repellent treatments to prevent oils and liquids getting inside and keep hands clean and dry, to advanced cut resistance yarns to protect workers from incisions.
Other examples include:
- fire-retardant yarns for gloves for first responders, the military and the welding markets
- moisture wicking yarns – many of the technologies coming out of sportswear can usefully be adapted for worker protection
- antimicrobial treatments – to keep gloves fresh and clean
- treatments to improve grip when handling potentially oily or greasy objects
In the PPE sector, one of the most significant developments has been the evolution of fire-retardant fabrics. These range from applied chemical treatments to protect fibres from fire to the development of materials like DuPont Nomex, where flame resistance is built into the chemical structure.
Similar industry-changing developments include DuPont Kevlar and Twaron, which were developed commercially in the 1970s and combine greater strength with lighter weight as well as heat resistance, and waterproof but breathable materials, such as Gore-Tex (invented in 1969), which consists of stretched polytetrafluoroethylene.
D3O’s latest innovation, D3O® iA, an additive that can modify the existing properties of thermoplastic rubber (TPR), also focuses on allowing manufacturers to attain higher protection with no loss of comfort or dexterity.
“We’re bringing our unique materials together with other advances in materials science, such as in cut resistance and flexibility,” explains Chris Meadows, Programme Manager at D3O.
Until now, the improved impact protection offered by D3O has only been available to glove manufacturers as proprietary bumpers sewn into their products.
The new liquid additive, however, offers manufacturers and brands the chance to tap into D3O® technology at a much earlier stage in the production process.
“Our challenge was to add something to existing materials that will run in the existing processes of factories,” says Dr Norman Keane, D3O’s Chief Technology Officer.
PVC plastisol (TPR) is PVC resin powder mixed with a plasticiser. “Up until this point, the only way to modify the properties of the TPR was either by changing the plasticiser or changing the amount of plasticiser to make the material harder or softer. But this didn’t fundamentally change the character of the TPR.”
To take the process further, D3O used its materials science knowhow to develop a new liquid additive that blends easily with PVC plastisol to provide better shock absorption properties. “That’s the breakthrough,” adds Keane. “We’ve developed a synergistic blend that gives us a 30 per cent improvement in protection.
“Factory owners don’t have to change the fundamental ways in which they process TPR; they can get a 30 per cent improvement in the protection properties of TPR but still run it in the same equipment around the world.”
As the working environment continues to evolve, the challenge for material scientists and manufacturers will be to meet the demands of tomorrow’s PPE users for greater comfort, style performance and productivity, while still providing maximum protection.
If wearable tech delivers ever more accurate information about the nature of the physical risks workers face, PPE providers will have to respond more quickly to changing demands.
“One of the things we’re offering with the new D3O® iA additive technology is a significant amount of design flexibility,” says Taylor. “Brands increasingly want solutions that are extremely adaptable, so they can apply them to meet the many and varied needs of the end user.”
The full version of this article was originally published in Issue 04 of Impact Magazine, which is available to download for free from our Resources section.