A safe, clean and pollution-free workplace is important in offering a quality of life for a labor force, which also enhances worker productivity. But there can be multiple risk factors in a work environment, including mechanical or electrical hazards, extreme heat or cold, toxic chemicals, noise and air pollution. More importantly, providing for worker physical and psychological comfort also supports workplace safety.
A report released jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) on work-related accidents was a welcome effort to highlight the importance of workplace safety. This report, which considered workplace-related injuries and casualties for the period 2000-2016, says that in 2016, about 1.9 million deaths occurred globally due to work-related incidents—about 19 percent of total deaths. The report emphasizes the need for countermeasures to pollution, heat hazards and other injuries.
Recent reports from various market survey agencies show that the protective textiles sector could grow at about 4.5 percent to 7 percent per annum. The global protective textiles market is expected to be $13.21 billion with an annual growth of 6.7 percent, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com.
Advanced textile materials occupy an important place in contributing to a safer working environment. Although the advanced textiles sector so far has not identified a separate category for workplace protective textiles, it is grouped under protective textiles, which are an important market among technical textiles.
Also, there is no structured classification for workplace PPE, but one can classify workplace protective textiles based on major risk factors, including electrical, thermal, chemical and biological, and mechanical hazards.
Filtering equipment and materials are among the critical applications that address risk factors. Prior to the COVID-19 era, there were two major groups of personnel filters: filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs), commonly called N95 masks, and surgical masks. FFRs such as N95s and N99s are equipped to protect wearers from fine particulate matters, aerosols and microbes, including viruses. People working in coal-powered plants and those exposed to toxic vapors must use such high-level filters for protections.
Face masks have evolved depending on the level of filtering efficiencies. A new class of face coverings, which is a combination of filters and cloth coverings (FISOR), emerged with the pandemic. For example, in the case of sanitation workers who help with keeping the environment clean, use of face coverings, even ordinary cloth filters, can serve as protective medium with limited filtration efficiency.
The recent WHO/ILO joint report said that in 2016, globally there have been approximately 450,000 deaths due to exposure of fine particulate matter, fumes and toxic gases. These statistics highlight the importance of personal, infrastructure and industrial filters.
The advanced textiles sector must engage in continuous research and development regarding filters. COVID-19 has heightened the need for standards development, so that filters can tackle current and future aerosol pollution and microbe contamination episodes more effectively. Importantly, in addition to facial protection, better indoor air quality requirements have received priority due to the ongoing pandemic.
Sustainability goals based on the Paris Agreement call for preventing global warming and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This necessitates the need for clean coal and clean energy infrastructures. Coal-powered plants must have better bag filters made using nonwoven technologies such as needle-punching and bonding methods. Such filters are commonly referred to as industrial filters.
While consumer and medical wipes occupy a major share of the wipes market segment, industrial wipes, which remain an important tool to counter workplace hazards, should not be neglected. According to the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) estimates in 2021, disposable nonwovens accounted for 51 percent of waste, compared to 49 percent in 2020. This shift was primarily due to the increase in wipes and filtration products.
Industrial wipes are heavyweight and more cost sensitive. Mechanical and heavy industries involving pipelines deal with petroleum products, for example, which can lead to health hazards. Industrial wipes that are made of absorbent fibrous substrates offer important non-medical countermeasures.
The advanced textiles industry has an opportunity to delve into developing sustainable industrial wipes. “With cotton prices skyrocketing this season, the conventional sector should look into finding opportunities for wastes and blends,” says Arunkrishna Srinivasan, director of the fine count cotton spinning mill, Jayalakshmi Textiles, based in Aruppukkottai, India.
“We look for avenues to collaborate with research organizations to develop value-added textiles. A fruitful collaboration with Texas Tech University has resulted in nonwoven wipes, which can be used by heavy metal and oil industries,” adds Arunkrishna. In addition to its role in workplace protection, it is significant that this advanced textile is also highly sustainable and avoids microplastic pollution.
More protection needed
A range of textile products find applications in reducing occupational injuries, including for cut-resistant clothing, visibility garments, soft ballistic chest shields and others. Workwear fabrics for use in dark environments use reflective and fluorescent pigments, materials and yarns. Railroad associates, construction staff and emergency personnel regularly use these garments.
India-based Alok Industries Ltd. manufactures bright color, high visibility fabrics. Normally these fabrics utilize fluorescence; while returning to a stable state, these materials release energy in the form of light and heat enabling the fabrics to be highly visible. A natural product like quinine not only has medicinal capabilities, it’s also known to have fluorescence. The chemistry and structure of these compounds will help us to investigate biomimicry in developing next generation protective textiles.
Flame- and heat-resistant fabrics are made using cotton and polyester-cotton blends, ranging in weight from 150 GSM to 300 GSM. India-based Loyal Textiles manufactures protective fabrics for workwear, using carbon fiber in blends to develop anti-static, flame-retardant fabrics.
The textile sector needs to utilize research advancements in nanotechnology, surface chemistry, optical physics and biomimicry to develop advanced textiles to address these and other hazards. Comfort and functional aspects of workwear fabrics are also important attributes and will play an important part in their practical and commercial acceptance.
Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D., is a professor at Texas Tech University.