People are increasingly interested in clothes made from smart textiles. They do more than help wearers look nice or stay protected from the elements. Many such garments have sensors woven into them or characteristics that make them change in response to a wearer’s body temperature or other aspects.
These clothes don’t merely provide interesting talking points to the individuals who have them, they could also promote worker safety. Here are some of the innovative textiles that companies should consider in order to keep their employees safe on the job.
What are smart textiles?
The smart textiles category is extremely vast, and there are varying definitions for what it includes. Even so, people generally categorise items into electronic and nonelectronic types. The first group contains products with sensors or similar electronics sewn in or attached to them. These are the kinds primarily examined in this article.
However, people also make smart textiles that offer desirable characteristics without relying on electronics. Some fabrics wick away sweat, keeping people cooler and drier as they engage in demanding activities. Others lift away stains or dry quickly when wet. People with limited time available to iron their garments also appreciate trousers and shirts that repel wrinkles.
Increasing evidence suggests smart textiles could help people stay safer while on the job. They might do several things, including:
- Send alerts to a wearer’s smartphone or watch if they overexert themselves
- Offer better visibility with built-in lights that flash to make someone stand out
- Provide an internal system that complements a person’s muscle power
- Notify supervisors if an employee falls while working or otherwise becomes distressed
Here’s a closer look at some examples. They highlight the exciting possibilities for improving worker safety with highly functional garments.
A textile responds to body temperature
Many people, especially those who work outdoors, are accustomed to wearing layers of clothing and putting them on or taking them off. They do this as their physical exertion levels, the weather, or other factors change. However, workers that don’t stay tuned into how their body feels could still find themselves getting overheated or too cold.
Researchers have developed a smart textile that detects how a wearer’s body temperature1 changes and reacts accordingly. They knit it from carbon nanotube-coated triacetate-cellulose fibres. They can tell how warm or sweaty a person’s skin is and then change to make them more comfortable.
The carbon nanotubes behave like metal, making the fibres act like tiny antennas. The spacing between the fibres affects how they react to the infrared radiation coming from a person’s body. When the fibres get hot and wet, they move closer together and let some of the wearer’s infrared radiation escape, cooling them down.
However, they move closer together in a colder, dryer environment, helping people retain their body heat. The same thing happens with the yarn that the fibres get spun into to create the fabric. The researchers said wearers could wash and dry this high-tech clothing without changing its properties.
Smart textiles like these could support worker safety by helping them avoid conditions that might lead to hypothermia or heatstroke if not managed correctly. They could work well for any roles that require employees to be outside or engage in high-exertion activities for prolonged periods.
A fabric to facilitate communication
High-visibility vests are common sights at sporting events, music festivals and other places where attendees need to quickly spot workers to provide help when needed. Some companies use a colour-coded system. Team leaders might wear orange vests, while lower-ranked employees wear yellow ones. These vests are typically reflective, making wearers easier to see in the dark.
However, a Chinese team came up with smart textiles that could enhance visibility and send messages to others2. They used conductive and luminescent fibres in cotton and created a “fabric display” with this approach. There’s also a power supply that harvests solar energy and makes the fibres light up on demand.
Researchers say people could even use this system to give people information. A security guard’s vest that says “Exit to your left” would help with crowd control as people leave an event that has just ended. Alternatively, an employee staffed to supervise the area in front of the stage at a busy concert might use this setup to alert medical teams that someone has collapsed. If the message says, “Person in distress in this row,” professionals can get right where they need to go without delay.
Potential applications at work
This setup lets people send and retrieve messages over a Bluetooth connection on a smartphone. Its creators believe it could one day help people with communication difficulties express themselves without speech. However, it’s easy to envision the applications in areas that may be too loud for people to get their points across by speaking.
Perhaps a person is standing near a machine that requires ear protection or stationed to secure an area of an event while surrounded by thousands of people. In that case, it might be easier to send a message to a supervisor that says, “Urgent help needed” or “Person injured” and use their smart clothing to make the distress call even more noticeable.
This technology could also support disaster relief crews. People digging through rubble or otherwise looking for survivors could change the messages broadcast on their clothing. They might inform other team members that they need more supplies or a bathroom break or confirm they need additional help rescuing someone.
Smarter face masks
Some smart textiles can assess how well something fits. In one example, researchers designed a soft cap with pressure sensors3. People wore it under helmets, which allowed them to assess whether the caps fit properly. This is critical since a person has the best protection while wearing a correctly fitting helmet.
Fit is also a part of many conversations about masks worn to protect people during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the accessory does not fit against the skin snugly, it does not function as well as it could. Scientists know COVID-19 primarily spreads through airborne transmission4. When an infected person speaks, they produce infection-filled respiratory droplets while exhaling. That’s one of the main reasons why wearing masks properly is so important during the pandemic.
A team recently developed a product that clips onto masks to confirm they fit well. It also measures a wearer’s heart and respiration rates. However, one of the potential downsides of smart textiles is their lack of flexibility. Masks with sewn-in sensors or special materials only apply to that single face covering.
The clip-on design of this innovation gets around that obstacle. This thoughtfulness is especially beneficial for health care workers or other employees who must wear non-reusable masks.
A face mask can diagnose Covid-19
Wellness surveys and temperature checks were strategies deployed at workplaces so managers could ensure team members were safe to work. These strategies were better than nothing, but they have shortcomings. People with COVID-19 don’t always have fevers when infectious. Plus, a person may not have sick pay benefits and feel desperate to keep earning money to avoid financial hardship. They may, therefore, not answer wellness survey questions truthfully.
There’s also the issue that the tests to diagnose COVID-19 are uncomfortable and are often in extremely short supply. Someone that wakes up with a slightly scratchy throat might justify it by reminding themselves they have a pollen allergy or have done more talking than usual over the past couple of days. They might go to work without getting tested first.
These tricky situations may have inspired researchers to revisit previous investigations using freeze-dried cellular machinery to detect the Ebola and Zika viruses5. The team created disposable sensors that fit into face masks and determine whether someone has COVID-19 within about 90 minutes. A wearer can make it so that the sensor only activates when they’re ready to take the test. Their results are also displayed inside the mask for privacy.
The development team also envisioned other uses for the sensors that support worker safety. They said putting them inside lab coats could help verify a medical worker’s level of COVID-19 exposure. They can also detect toxic chemicals, including nerve agents. Using them that way could help first responders, military personnel and others who are regularly exposed to high-risk environments stay safer.
Protect hands in new ways
Workplaces are increasingly investing in worker safety wearables. Some of them include panic buttons so people can instantly call supervisors in emergencies. Others allow managers to see the exact locations of employees during site evacuations. Some wearables vibrate when a worker moves in a way likely to cause injury6.
It would be even better if wearables warned people of hazardous situations. Some do, such as by alerting utility workers to active power lines during restoration work7. However, people interested in worker safety are eager to make smart textiles as nonintrusive as possible. One way to do that is to include them in items wearers naturally use in their work, such as gloves.
One possibility is to make gloves that change colour to warn people of unexpected hazards8. Such options don’t exist yet, but it’s easy to see how convenient and useful they’d be. People working in industries ranging from medicine to construction could wear them and get real-time updates about things in the environment that could hurt them. They could respond by increasing their hand protection, moving away from a dangerous area, or making another proactive response.
A glove to safeguard against vibration
It would also be helpful if a person’s hand protection recommended when they should take breaks. Duties that involve holding vibrating tools can put people at risk of hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). It causes numbness and weakness that can become permanent. One of the most visible signs occurs when a person’s fingers turn white after prolonged use of these items.
A forward-thinking person sought to solve this problem by designing a smart glove that tracks a wearer’s real-time vibration exposure9. It includes a battery-powered monitor and gives a visual indicator of how much vibration someone experiences during their work. They know that they should take a break when it gets too high to avoid HAVS.
The glove can also send data to supervisors about wearers’ hand orientations and grips. These details enable improved risk assessments. For example, a manager sees that someone consistently engages in techniques that could elevate their risk of injury. In that case, they could have a conversation with the individual and perhaps recommend receiving more training or getting to the heart of certain risky habits.
Smart textiles complement best practices
Even the most advanced smart textiles won’t check all the boxes for worker safety. A person still must behave responsibly while on the clock and pay attention to all the required processes associated with their role. However, smart clothing could provide an extra layer of protection to the gear someone already uses and the knowledge they possess about protecting themselves from accidents.
Finnish researchers have been working on making construction sites safer with smart clothing and data analytics. They developed a jacket that collects data from a wearer’s environment and the person themselves10. The team also trained an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm on the characteristics of dangerous settings.
Besides warning workers of the dangers of their environment, the system can recognise the individual’s specific tasks. It then generates alerts about any hazards. The researchers also want to train the system to detect someone working at a height and teach it to spot any deviations in working patterns. The hope is that the approach could stop accidents before they happen.
Clothing that works like an exosuit
Some companies offer mechanical exosuits that people wear over their clothes. Those products augment a person’s strength to aid them with tasks like lifting or hammering.
However, there’s also ongoing work regarding making mechanised clothing11. The goal is that wearers would not step into a bulky contraption. Instead, the apparel would look strikingly similar to the non-smart clothing hanging in their wardrobe.
One brand claims its “electric clothing” can give a wearer up to 50 extra pounds of power while supporting their core and hip regions. The company offers over-the-clothes and next-to-skin solutions, as well as options featuring electronics sewn into the garments.
Smart textiles reduce firefighters’ burn risks
Most workers cannot avoid risk as much as they’d like. Others face it head-on, knowing every assignment threatens their lives. Firefighters are part of that second group. Researchers realised that since these professionals wear heat-resistant clothing, it’s often hard for them to gauge when there’s a genuine risk of becoming burned.
They developed firefighting clothing with sensors that tell wearers when ambient temperatures are too high12. People get audible warnings in time, helping them avoid burns. Researchers also tested the suit and its integrated sensors to verify that the electronics did not pose additional threats to users.
They worked with a specialty provider to develop technology that protects the smart system from complicating factors. A specific coating protects the electronics from possible damage caused by sweat. Additionally, designers made the battery casing heat resistant. The developers also want to investigate other potential uses, such as in the health care and industrial sectors.
Smart textiles support worker safety efforts
Keeping people safe on the job requires a multifaceted approach. It often includes training, as well as accessories that protect the head from impact, or act as germ safeguards. Those things will remain necessary. However, as this overview shows, people responsible for employee safety should also strongly consider products with built-in sensors and other innovative approaches.