Selecting Garments That Will Be Worn

Make sure to balance protection with comfort, fit, and style when selecting protective apparel.

Stretch panels under the arms and across the back offer better fit, increased range of motion, and built-in freedom of movement.The purpose of protective apparel is to protect the wearer from hazards in the work environment. To achieve maximum protection, those involved in the apparel selection process must consider both form and function. Many times, the issue of garment comfort, fit, style and overall “wearability” is not given adequate consideration. This can lead to compliance issues, which may then result in unsafe operating procedures.

For three years in a row, a survey of safety professionals found that noncompliance with personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols continues to be an issue in the workplace. In a survey undertaken by Kimberly-Clark Professional at the 2008 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress, 89 percent of safety professionals said they had observed workers failing to wear PPE when they should have been. In 2007, 87 percent answered yes to this question, while 85 percent gave this response in 2006.

One factor that can lead to noncompliance is uncomfortable PPE. In the 2007 NSC survey, discomfort was found to be the chief cause of noncompliance with PPE protocols. Next was: workers thinking PPE was not necessary for the task. This was followed by:

  • Too hot
  • Poor fit
  • Unattractive-looking

These issues can be addressed by selecting high-quality PPE that performs properly, fits well, and is also comfortable and stylish. While selection of task-appropriate protective garments may appear daunting -– especially without an established U.S. standard for protective apparel -– it does not have to be insurmountable. The key is to balance apparel function (protection factors) and apparel form (style, comfort, and wearability factors) within the scope of a realistic hazard assessment and risk analysis.

Hazard Assessment and Risk Analysis
The first step in selecting protective garments is a thorough and common-sense analysis of the hazards in the work environment, coupled with an assessment of the realistic level of risk each hazard poses.

For example, a hazards analysis may identify the chemical acetone. However, there is a great deal of difference in the protective apparel required for a worker exposed to a quart of acetone in a well-ventilated room, compared with one who is exposed to a large vat of acetone in an enclosed space.

As another example, consider a laboratory where a trained technician is working with 10ml of sulfuric acid at a time to create a dilute solution. Here, the quantity of acid is small, and only the technician's hands and forearms are entering the area of potential exposure. So even though a splash is possible, the whole body is not exposed, and the volume of chemical is minimal. A hazard analysis and risk assessment of this workplace scenario might drive toward a selection of gloves and sleeve protectors, and possibly a chemical apron, but not a full-body coverall. Climbing in and out of a full-body chemical coverall may not be practical and may deter compliance.

It's important for the hazard analysis and risk assessment procedure to be adjusted to the practical demands of the work task. If not, one runs the risk of either over-protection or under-protection -– both of which have serious consequences. Over-protection may lead to immediate problems. For example, heat stress is a common problem in many industrial settings. The result may be users who do not properly comply with wearing protocols by modifying or incorrectly using the garment to avoid overheating. Under-protection may lead to chronic health problems down the road -– after years of low-level exposure to certain hazardous substances.

Garment Performance
Garment performance should be evaluated in terms of how well the garment will protect wearers from the hazards identified in the hazard and risk analysis phase. Key performance factors include:

  • Chemical barrier performance. Evaluate both permeation test results (ASTM F739) and penetration testing results (ASTM F903), the latter of which is more appropriate for testing chemical barrier when splash exposure is anticipated, which is more likely in industrial settings than full immersion in a liquid.
  • Dry particulate hold-out. While there is currently no industry-standard test for particle barrier, all major fabric and garment suppliers should offer information about the performance of the apparel material against a variety of different-size particles.
  • Bloodborne pathogen resistance. Just because a protective garment offers adequate resistance to certain liquids, one should not assume that it will also protect against bloodborne pathogens. Review penetration test results against ASTM F1670 and ASTM F1671.

The Fit Factor
Clearly, a protective garment's barrier performance should be the most important decision-making criteria. However, "wearability" issues related to comfort, fit, and style may have a big effect on compliance with apparel-wearing protocols. For example, if coveralls don't provide adequate breathability, there is a chance that users will avoid wearing the PPE or will modify the PPE in some way, thus compromising its protective features.

Wearability also extends to garment fit and compatibility issues.  Fit issues relate to apparel sizing and body geometry.Wearability also extends to garment fit and compatibility issues. Fit issues relate to apparel sizing and body geometry. For example, a garment's sleeves must not ride up to expose skin when the wearer reaches forward. From a compatibility standpoint, both specifiers and users need to have a clear understanding of whether gloves should be taped to the outside of the coverall sleeve (if, for example, the use scenario calls for bending over and immersing one's hands in a dangerous liquid) or to the inside of the coverall sleeve (if, for example, the use scenario calls for heavy chemical splash exposure, to prevent the splash from dripping down into the cuff of the glove).

In addition to barrier performance, the design and construction of the garment affects its ability to protect against bloodborne pathogens. For example, a garment with seams in the back instead of the front provides more protection in primary exposure areas. A seam that is serged with overlap stitching, then reinforced with a film tape, will better resist penetration by blood and other liquids compared with unsealed seams. Covered zippers also provide extra protection in splash situations.

Several other fit and style issues should also play a role in the selection process of protective apparel and other PPE, as well as in helping to improve PPE compliance.

For garments to be comfortable, they also need to be designed to fit the needs of a diverse workforce. Sizing and cut are extremely important because for a comfortable fit, a garment can't be too big or too small. If it is too small, the wearer may be exposed to hazards, due to rip-outs, or users may modify the garment to be more comfortable. Garments should offer a generous cut that exceeds ANSI minimum sizing standards, especially across the shoulders and key stress areas such as the torso and crotch. A slightly fuller cut will help to enhance the comfort of the garment and will help reduce pulls, tears, and rip-outs. It's also important to select garments that offer a greater range of sizing options to fit both women and men, as well as a wide range of body types.

One apparel design feature that helps to improve fit and makes for a more comfortable and wearable garment is an elastic waist. Stretch panels under the arms and across the back also offer better fit, increased range of motion, and built-in freedom of movement that enable coveralls to move and stretch with the wearer.

In addition, PPE that allows workers to express their individuality leads to greater compliance. Providing a range of options in terms of color and other style aspects gives workers some control over how they look. When people are content with their appearance in the PPE, it follows that they will be more likely to wear the PPE without modification.

Lastly, PPE that is perceived as "cool" is more likely to be worn, especially by the Gen-Y workforce. That is why many PPE manufacturers are looking toward the consumer fashion and sports apparel industries for cues on the latest styles, which can be adapted for the PPE market.

PPE will protect workers only if it is worn properly and consistently. Comfort, fit, and even style can help to drive compliance. Choosing a PPE supplier that offers a full range of garments, accessories, and other PPE also will help to ensure that workers have a variety of protection options that are ideally suited to providing the right combination of form and function. For more information on selecting the right protective garment for a specific task, visit the educational center at

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