HomeHSEQThe science of wearer comfort and PPE

The science of wearer comfort and PPE

Listen to this article

Anna West, GORE-TEX

Comfort is the most complex thing we know. We can identify and feel comfort as a state, but trying to define comfort is challenging. Instead, we are more able to identify things which cause us discomfort. Therefore, at Gore, comfort is the absence of discomfort.

Clothing comfort is multifactorial. It’s comprised of a psychological/emotional element relating to an individual’s values and role, a physical/sensorial element relating to material feel when next to the skin, and a physiological element linked to the mechanical and thermal properties of the clothing. The latter is particularly important for PPE comfort.

Balancing wearer comfort with protection

In the past, PPE which offered the correct safety protection for rail workers and engineers came at a cost. It was uncomfortable to wear and constructed using heavy, non-breathable, and thick waterproof fabrics.

As a Comfort Scientist at Gore, I draw the link between the testing and evaluation of our materials and products in the lab to the human experience of our end-users in the real world. This is to ensure that lightweight, breathable, and waterproof protection balances perfectly with the highest safety levels for a specific industry sector or worker.

Impact of inadequate insulation

For our bodies to function, our internal body temperature needs to remain at around 37°C. When our body temperature decreases (in cool/cold conditions with low activity) heat loss from the body is reduced by redirecting blood away from the skin. Shivering can also be activated to increase heat production. An individual will experience cold discomfort, decreases in performance and risk hypothermia.

A 2012 study by Muller et al explored the correlation between exposure to a cold environment and the impact of heat loss on the cognitive functioning of our brains. This was done by exposing the test cohort to 10°C whilst they were wearing minimal clothing.

elative to the baseline set for comfort and warmth, the results showed a decline in performance, working memory, and choice reaction time. These impairments persisted 60 mins into a rewarming period at 25°C air temperature.

This study shows us that, however defined, the comfort of PPE is absolutely necessary. Clothing must provide adequate insulation relative to the environmental conditions and physical activity being performed, and offer the benefits of being windproof and waterproof. This is an important element for safety and protection at work, especially when it involves low temperatures or specific risks from working outdoors in foul weather.

Impact of breathable garments

Alternatively, when our body temperature increases (in cool/cold environments with high activity or in warm environments), heat loss is increased from the body by redirecting blood to the skin. Sweating is stimulated to dissipate heat via evaporation. The ability for sweat to evaporate is dependent on the moisture vapour permeability of our clothing – also known as breathability. If the evaporation of sweat is hindered by the clothing, then workers will experience thermal burden, become hot and feel uncomfortable. This may not only result in concentration loss but can lead to confusion, dizziness and, in extreme cases, cause unconsciousness. Therefore, it is important to choose protective breathable clothing that incorporates wicking to take sweat away from the body.

Benefits of getting comfort right

It’s no longer necessary for your comfort and safety to be impeded by your PPE provision. If you are comfortable then you make better decisions, will stay healthier, and work more productively.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.