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Progress in protective products

October 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature

Fabrics offer better comfort and functionality, meeting growing demands for safety in a variety of environments and markets

1012_f2_1Work environments of many types pose hazards that can result in injuries. The safety and protective segment of the specialty fabrics industry works to develop high performance products that prevent illness and injury from germs, chemicals, fire, heat, cuts and abrasions, falls and other dangers.

Photo: Waubridge Specialty Fabrics
Photo: Waubridge Specialty Fabrics

“Major drivers in today’s protective apparel markets are tied to lighter-weight garments and higher-dexterity gloves. Productivity and safety are critical in today’s industrial environment, and providing workers with 21st century protective gear is paramount to their success,” says Matt Smith, vice president and general manager of Waubridge Specialty Fabrics LLC of Chester, Va. Waubridge built the credibility of its patented flame-resistant fiber blend batting and Kovenex® brand by focusing on the fire services industry.

“Now we are trying to leverage that success into industrial safety. We now have an aluminized version for radiant heat protection. We are trying to bring different formats to a fabric to make it more usable in industrial safety.” Smith refers to those who work with molten materials and notes that Kovenex also provides ANSI Level 2 cut resistance.

Used for lining gloves, boots and sleeves, Kovenex aramid is inherently flame resistant and “skin friendly,” Smith says, resulting in fewer layers and a lighter-weight and more comfortable garment. It is sold primarily in the United States for firefighter hand protection, but also is marketed to the United Kingdom, Southeast Asia and Mexico.

“I am in the middle of working with a company in Australia that would dearly love to use our material, but they want different ISO standards to be tested,” Smith says. “We’re trying to go global.”

Waubridge also will customize Kovenex to meet customers’ needs. For example, the company provided water and oil repellency to protect police officers in the United Kingdom who had to contend with Molotov cocktails used in street riots. “We also can add different adhesives that make the downstream process easier for people making garments,” Smith says.

“We are constantly looking for sustainability—looking at new fibers that we can add in our blend,” he notes. “That’s the next chapter of our growth.”

Expanded web presence

In 1977, four engineers from the polyurethane polymer division of BF Goodrich formed a company with one product: a replacement for leather straps in the equine industry. BioPlastics Co. of North Ridgeville, Ohio, then expanded the market for its BioThane® coated nylon webbing to the medical industry and then the safety industry.

“It really just came down to what we saw was in all of these markets the need for a cleanable, durable webbing,” says Scott Hanna, business development manager. The company’s new offering is water-resistant webbing that also is lighter and more flexible. “It will still provide protection, not quite as much as the standard product, but extensively more than regular raw webbing, and I believe it’s going to be a game changer,” Hanna says.

Although the U.S. equine industry is its largest market, BioPlastics has seen tremendous growth in business from Europe’s safety industry. The company has had to meet the challenge of differing safety codes, but, Hanna says, “Typically our safety web will exceed anybody’s standards.”

BioPlastics occasionally purchases webbing from overseas manufacturers and tests it against its own products. “We see some of the performance quality is even less than what we were making 25 years ago,” Hanna says. “Over the years, we have completely redesigned the way we manufacture products, not only for efficiency but also for better performance. It’s been in every aspect—from the textiles that we use to different ingredients that we use to the process that we use. … Some of our best products have been a result of our clients requesting additional properties.”

Calling it curtains for bacteria

Photo: InPro Corp.
Photo: InPro Corp.

As a manufacturer of wall and door protection, solid surfaces for washrooms, and clinical furnishings, InPro Corp. is a major supplier in the health care industry. Because fabrics harbor bacteria that can be transferred by touch, the Muskego, Wis.-based company recognized the need for a curtain material that would prevent cross-contamination.

For the past six years, InPro has been the exclusive distributor of antimicrobial, antifungal, liquid- and stain-resistant and flame-retardant Shield™ by Panaz®. Though primarily used for privacy curtains in clinics, hospitals and assisted living facilities, Shield also can be used as a shower curtain because it is fluid repellant.

“Its antimicrobial properties are inherent in the material,” says Mark Alan, InPro’s senior vice president of product management and development. “It forms a covalent bond, so it won’t leech out or lose efficacy.”

Shield comes in three collections: Classic, the most liquid and stain resistant, with a tactile matte finish; Designer, with a satin finish and softer touch, are nonwoven, modified polyesters; and the Perspective collection, which are woven polyesters.

“What we didn’t expect was the Designer series ended up with extremely good acoustical properties as well,” Alan says. “It reduces noise by 57 percent over a standard curtain.”

Although InPro has responded to special requests, the company does not have a channel for direct-to-consumer requests, and Shield fabrics are about 15–20 percent of its product line. “We sell primarily in the Americas, because the designs are more to U.S. likes,” Alan says. “We are in the process of developing different patterns and colorways for the Middle East and Indian markets.”

InPro also offers customization and is working on several projects with designers. “They want a certain brand or image with their hospital,” Alan says.

“We are always looking for what’s going to be next from a scientific standpoint. Bacteria becomes more and more resistant over time,” adds Alan, an associate member of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control.

The green blue garment

Just because safety comes first doesn’t mean you can’t simultaneously make sustainability a core criteria. Victor Group, founded in 1947 as a wool recycling business, introduced a fire-resistant, antimony-free polyester (Eco Intelligent® polyester) in 2008. This summer, the Saint-Georges, Quebec, -based company unveiled its first post-consumer recycled aramid fabric: inherently fire-resistant and arc flash-resistant Ecoshield®.

“It’s for every worker in a harsh environment, but we are really focusing on the oil and gas industry and the mining market for the moment,” says Samuel Jacques, marketing coordinator. “And for the moment, we are focusing on North America, mostly in Canada.”

Ecoshield looks like blue denim because most of the industrial garments being recycled for raw fibers are blue. Victor adds blue virgin aramid for uniformity. “We do not add chemicals to make colors,” Jacques says. “If we were to take back enough orange garments or green garments or any color, we could add virgin aramid fibers of the same color.”

He also notes that additional capabilities are not added “because the chemical that we could put on it would reduce the FR properties.”

Victor Group has a partner in Canada to collect worn garments and has its own recycling center where the garments are cleaned, buttons stripped and fabric shredded to fiber to make yarn that is woven into fabric for new garments.

With a firm commitment to sustainability, Victor Group not only uses recycled materials for its products and packaging, but also strives for zero waste throughout its facilities. Hydroelectric power accounts for 91 percent of its energy use.

Winning combinations

Founded in 2005, Textronics of Wilmington, Del., developed fabric that would react to electrical, optical or magnetic signals for medical, military, first responder and sports applications. In 2008, sportswear giant adidas acquired the company to capitalize on its embedded sensor technology to monitor heart rates.
“We have looked at technology for workers in hazardous environments, but at this time, our focus is the sports market,” says Qaizar Hassonjee, vice president of innovation at adidas Wearable Sports Electronics.

On July 25, adidas debuted its miCoach technology during the Major League Soccer All-Star Game in Philadelphia, Pa. Beginning in the 2013 season, all 19 MLS clubs will begin using the miCoach Elite System.

The system measures heartbeat and step movements through a series of electrodes and sensors woven into the fabric of a base-layer garment. This real-time data and analysis gives coaches the ability to not only maintain optimum levels of player performance, but also prevent overtraining and risk of injury. According to Hassonjee, the company has tested the miCoach system with soccer teams in the United States and Europe.

The sensor technology also has been employed in adidas’ Stella McCartney line of sports bras worn by tennis champ Caroline Wozniacki and heptathlon Olympic gold medalist Jessica Ennis. NuMetrex® heart-rate-monitoring apparel (available in a sports bra for women and cardio shirt for men) is made with nylon/spandex or polyester/spandex and is washable.

After watching the Olympic Games in London and reading how the elite athletes trained with the help of technology, inspired consumers may be looking for “smart” performance apparel, too.

Cutting down on injuries

Photo: Kimberly-Clark Professional
Photo: Kimberly-Clark Professional

While a typical young mother might equate Kimberly-Clark Corp. and protective products with Huggies® diapers, the company also has an entire division—Kimberly-Clark Professional in Roswell, Ga.— focused on making workplaces safer, healthier and more productive. Products that use specialty fabrics range from high-visibility/reflective apparel and lab protection apparel to recently introduced cut-resistant gloves and sleeves (especially important for protecting those who handle sharp metal and glass edges).

“There’s a phenomenal amount of injuries that happen all the time in industrial environments,” says David Matela, director of North American product management within the Kimberly-Clark Professional global safety business. “If you think how many of those could be prevented, that’s what really gets at the heart of the matter: how you protect those workers.”

Photo: Kimberly-Clark Professional
Photo: Kimberly-Clark Professional

Using a combination of fibers and filaments in nonwoven and woven fabrics, Kimberly-Clark Professional engineers products to meet demands and regulations throughout its global marketplace. Nonwoven fabrics typically impart breathability and a barrier to liquids such as chemicals, while engineered wovens such as Kevlar® and Dyneema® provide resistance to cuts.

Matela says that as companies expect more and more from workers, they desire protective fabrics that allow employees to perform tasks for longer periods of time.

“We want properties in fabrics that make them as comfortable as possible, whether it’s through breathability, a liquid barrier or the ability to flex,” Matela says. “I would hope those materials will continue to push the boundaries to raise the level of the value they are providing to manufacturers.”

Like others, Kimberly-Clark Professional also is developing more sustainable products to protect the earth as well as its people. “We have an interest in moving that direction with our portfolio of safety products, following our cleaning and hygiene business’ lead,” he says.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.