Safety First, Comfort Second

June 1, 2005

protective apparel makers try new materials to boost compliance

World events have broadened the role of protective garments in recent years. Once worn in select hazardous situations, some industrial environments and in the medical operating room, protective garments are heading mainstream as more folks are faced with hazardous situations in their daily lives.

This increased awareness has created a need for new products that respond to a variety of situations. Eager to meet this need, protective apparel manufacturers are coming up with new products regularly. Hoping that a diverse product range will not only add new customers but also save lives, companies are focusing on two core areas—comfort and protection—and are achieving this by incorporating more nonwoven materials into their lines.

While industry statistics show slow tonnage growth in protective apparel in North America, it has emerged as a segment ripe with opportunity for innovation. Valued at approximately $360 million in North America, protective apparel continues to be a smaller part of the nonwovens industry. Also, this segment has been long dominated by roll goods producer DuPont Nonwovens, Wilmington, DE. Currently, about 75% of all nonwoven-based protective apparel products use DuPont’s Tyvek flashspun nonwovens, and personal protection has long been an area of keen interest to DuPont. Last winter, DuPont reported that it had stepped up supply efforts to China and Hong Kong to help healthcare responders ward off the threat of SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and executives have reported that they are prepared to do the same this year if the threat of SARS escalates. The structure of Tyvek reportedly provides a strong barrier against a range of microscopic substances, including fine dust particles and fibers.

“One of our focus areas going forward will be to identify the emerging threat and markets for protective apparel and what we can do to meet the needs of those markets,” said Debbie McNeil, marketing communication for DuPont Personal Protection.

To facilitate this effort, in November 2002, DuPont formed its Personal Protection division which combines most of its protection business across its many technology platforms. DuPont’s other protective offerings include Tychem haz mat garments and Nomex and Kevlar protective fibers.

“The big drivers for this effort were to help end users have one place for all of their needs and allow DuPont to further integrate our safety and protection resources to meet those needs, Ms. McNeil added. “We have a 30-year history in this area and we are committed to continue to provide the trusted, proven solutions our customers want.”

Outside of Tyvek, other nonwovens used in protective applications include spunbond polypropylene and some SMS composite fabrics. Spunlaced nonwovens are also popular in medical protective apparel. These nonwovens, as well as more resistant microporous film products, are giving Tyvek a run for its money. Whether the manufacturing is offering increased cost effectiveness, comfort, durability, barrier resistance or breathability, this trend is creating a protective apparel market that is more diverse than ever before.

“R&D has been and continues to be critical to our participation in the protective apparel market,” said Charlie Roberson, market manager of Precision Fabric Groups, Greensboro, NC. “ The market continues to become more stratified as industrial end users seek the optimal combination of protection, comfort and cost. Without significant R&D resources we would not be able to supply the highly engineered fabrics end users are demanding.”

Not only are products broad in protective apparel, the tasks for which they are intended are also diverse. INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC, estimated that there are between 15 and 20 key markets for protective apparel including nuclear, cleanroom, food preparation, paint manufacturing, fire and chemical protection and other industrial situations. Not only do these garments protect the workers from the environment, they sometimes protect the environment from the worker—as is the case in many cleanroom and other pharmaceutical environments. Therefore, many factors must be considered when deciding which product to use.

Driving Compliance
A key goal of protective apparel manufacturers is not to just sell the products but to make sure their customers are wearing them correctly. While safety is a concern of manufacturing companies, their employees often forsake their own safety in the interest of comfort. This is where nonwovens come in. The inherent flexibility and breathability of many types of nonwovens have made them top choices of manufacturers interested in achieving comfort. Furthermore, in recent years technology has improved the barrier resistance of nonwovens materials such as SMS or flashspun to broaden their range in protective apparel.

“We believe that comfort drives compliance when it comes to worker protection,” explained Beth Hohl, marketing manager for Kimberly-Clark’s Safety Division. “If a worker is comfortable, he is more likely to keep the protective apparel or protective equipment on.”

K-C offers SMS and film laminated materials to the protective apparel market under two core brands: Kleenguard for general applications and Hazard-Gard for chemical protection. In recent years, the company’s approach has largely been market driven, as world events have opened up new consumer demands, according to Ms. Hohl. “In North America, our growth has outpaced growth in industrial segments” she said. “The goal is to help employers keep their workers protected from the environment or processes they work near while keeping the worker as comfortable as possible.” Research efforts of Kimberly-Clark have been focused on these two aspects, protection at the highest comfort level possible.

Also driving compliance is the government. Since September 11, the U.S. government has expanded its Domestic Preparedness Act, which provides major U.S. centers with emergency readiness funds. This funding has grown from millions of dollars to billions in the past several years. For Lakeland Industries, Ronkonkoma, NY, concerns over personal safety have increased profits nearly 75% in the last five years. “We have doubled our capacity in protective clothing and our sales have matched these increases,” explained Carl Brown, senior technical product specialist.

A distributor for DuPont, the bulk of Lakeland’s protective business centers around Tyvek, which Mr. Brown, called “the standard” against which all other products are judged. While there are many grades of Tyvek, however, there are situations where Tyvek is not necessarily the right choice. For one thing, Tyvek is a premium product that can sometimes be cost prohibitive; for another there are areas where microporous film or SMS might be better suited to handle a job. “In the end, there are four factors that need to be weighed when making a fabric choice—comfort, barrier, breathability and price,” Mr. Brown added. “When you alter one aspect of this equation, all are affected. Unfortunately, all too often, cost becomes a primary concern.”

Nearly 75% of nonwoven-based protective suits are made from DuPont’s Tyvek flashspun materials.

Educating Everyone
Old habits can be hard to break. Getting workers to break the habit of unprotection can be difficult. Across the board, from medical personnel to industrial workers, efforts are underway to educate those at risk on the danger of noncompliance. This trend is particularly apparent in Asian countries where knowledge of infectious diseases and biological threats are not as well known as they are in developed areas.

To reverse this situation a team of executives from Kappler Protective Products, Guntersville, AL, recently traveled to Vietnam where they educated local healthcare officials on the importance of stopping the spread of disease. “Education needs to be important because manufacturers have a dutiful responsibility to go out and learn about standards,” said Laura Kappler Roberts, business development manager of Kappler. “Our customers can’t afford to do all of the legwork. It’s our responsibility to do it for them.”

Kappler has taken the same approach to educated emergency medical technicians on the importance of personal protective equipment. EMTs tend to not be as leery of infection as hospital workers even though they are exposed to blood and other fluids in an environment that is less controlled than other medical situations.

Taking similar strides to limit the spread of disease among healthcare workers is Cardinal Healthcare. This fall the company launched its “Respiratory Etiquette Initiative” for caregivers worldwide. Under this program, Cardinal Health is making available posters and wall-mounted dispensers with medical face masks that advise patients to don a mask if they have a cough and a fever. Dozens of hospitals have reportedly hung the posters in waiting rooms, lobbies and emergency rooms. It is also offering educational materials aimed at reinforcing basic infection control practices, such as covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and using personal handwash products such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, areas with the most extensive SARS outbreaks saw the virus spread most rapidly among healthcare workers caring for SARS patients and within healthcare fatalities. In Toronto, 77% of patients infected in the initial SARS outbreak contracted the disease in the hospital and more than half of all SARS cases in Toronto were healthcare workers.

Masking Germs
Until recently, most protective apparel—used mainly to ward off infectious disease—was worn in hospitals, more specifically in hospital operating rooms. In the past several years, however, increased awareness over infectious diseases has made the threat of their spread more realistic to average citizens. This in turn has broadened the role of protective medical apparel around the world. Last year, in Asia, for example, sales of nonwoven-based protective face masks hit record highs when everybody started wearing them to protect themselves from (SARS). This practice was particularly apparent on airplanes thanks to worries that the the disease was largely spread in the sky. Another area where disease spread was identified as hospital and other healthcare facilities where workers began wearing highly protective suits to ward off the illness.

Where once medical protective gear was largely limited to the operating room and other areas with high liquid levels, now airborne pathogens recognized as disease carriers, making the wearing of these materials prevalent among all types of healthcare workers from emergency medical technicians to nurses to doctors. While the threat of SARS has subsided, the spread of other infectious illnesses such as pneumonia and influenza is being prevented by increased use of protective apparel among personnel.

Both SARS and the flu are respiratory diseases that can be deadly. The flu is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks, sending the flu virus into the air where others can inhale it and contract it. This illness can also be spread through hand-to-hand contact or when a person touches a surface with the virus on it. SARS, which first emerged in Asia last year, is believed to be spread in a similar way but might require closer physical contact.

Higher Learning
Further proof of the technological richness and opportunity for innovation in protective apparel can be seen in the amount of university dollars being dedicated to advancing this market. University research and papers abound on this topic as researchers look for ways of adding barrier resistance to nonwoven fabrics.

At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, efforts have been made to add an absorbent layer to protective garments to increase comfort and add to the strength of microbial finishes. This technique, along with an electrostatic charge, has significantly increased the percentage of germs being killed. “The approach has been a combination of antimicrobial materials with membrane protection and treatment and finishes,” explained UT researcher Larry Wadsworth. “It’s not too extreme or too expensive and we are able to provide multiple levels of protection for a variety of needs.”

Meanwhile, Texas Tech researchers have been looking at the role of multilayer composites to increase comfort while boosting effectiveness in garments. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Army, this project uses needled composite materials, rather than traditional activated carbon, to enhance protection, comfort and increase versatility. “We have significant proof that these three-layer composites can absorb costs despite what fiber is used,” said university researcher Seshadri Ramkumar. “What is particularly good for the army is the ability to use natural fibers in this technology. Polyurethane-based products are suffocating the troops. This greatly improves their comfort and allows them to do their jobs better.”

Research, both on the university and corporate level, will continue to respond to the needs of and threats to the wearers of protective apparel. Certainly, this will broaden the scope of this market into new frontiers. “R&D has been and continues to be critical to our participation in the protective apparel market,” PFG’s Mr. Roberson said. “The market continues to become more stratified as industrial end users seek the optimal combination of protection, comfort and cost. Without significant R&D resources we would not be able to supply the highly engineered fabrics end users are demanding.”

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