Well before they became fashionable, jeans were worn as work clothing by farmers and miners because they were so durable. Over time, textiles have changed considerably, to the point that today some of them are referred to as being “smart.” These fabrics are able to detect, react and adapt to various stimuli: electric, magnetic or thermal for instance. Although they are not designed primarily from the perspective of occupational health and safety (OHS), some offer interesting avenues in that area.
“We are very advanced in smart textile technology. Our research and manufacturing capacity in Québec and the rest of Canada is very strong,” observes Justine Decaens, head of the Intelligent Textiles team with the CCT Group.
Ms. Decaens and her colleague Patricia Dolez recently completed an analysis of the application potential of smart textiles in occupational health and safety, in the scope of research funded by the IRSST. Her research team reviewed the scientific and technical literature and contacted manufacturers. More than 500 references to technologies, solutions and products related to smart textiles and materials were examined.
“We considered the different types of smart textiles in products now marketed. Currently, not many are being directly applied to OHS. We’re talking more about sports, leisure or medical products,” Ms. Decaens explains.
Examples of Applications
Among the highlights in the application of these materials, Decaens cites as an example a textile heat flow sensor permeable to water vapour that can determine the amount of heat exchanged between the human body and its environment by taking the subject’s perspiration into account. “We also looked at sportswear, for example, garments that measure heart rate. There may be interesting parameters to look at for isolated workers who are facing stressful situations, such as firefighters or police officers,” she says.
There are also outfits that measure muscle activity and can monitor for signs of musculoskeletal disorders, in order to prevent them. “People who work on a production line or who perform repetitive movements could use these types of clothing to analyze their posture. It would be easy to establish limits, for instance, to say that a movement cannot exceed a certain threshold,” says Decaens. She adds that these garments could also act somewhat like a second skin. “When you think about it, more and more people in the automotive industry are working with an exoskeleton to help them in their tasks. Smart textiles may sound a bit like science fiction, but we aren’t that far away, in reality.”
Responding to Occupational Health and Safety Needs
“One of the primary needs in OHS relates to the issue of the comfort of current protective equipment. In other words, it is not so much that this equipment does not fulfil its role, it’s rather that it is not worn enough or not worn properly because it’s uncomfortable,” Decaens points out.
“With smart textiles, the idea would be to provide the same level of protection, but with more comfort, particularly in terms of thermoregulation. We noted during our study that protective equipment is often too hot and cumbersome. The solution would be to have garments that cool themselves and are comfortable. Not many products do this,” notes the group leader. Many textiles regulate the body’s temperature passively, for example, to manage humidity. “One may think that they cool the body, but they simply absorb moisture more quickly. Therefore, in that sense, they aren’t smart textiles. When we’re talking about smart textiles, we mean textiles that actively cool,” explains the researcher.
Smart textiles seem promising for applications related to workers’ health and safety. But although they may respond to an actual concern, it is important to know whether or not these products themselves could result in OHS problems for the person who wears them.
“We have to look at the downsides of these products. Some are equipped with batteries that are worn close to the body. What are their long-term consequences? We don’t know yet, because it hasn’t been studied,” remarks Decaens. Another problem identified is data protection. “How will these data be used? Who will have access? The workers themselves? Their bosses? These issues should be explored at the implementation process and protocol stage. After all, innovation is not just related to the product itself, it’s also related to the mentality of the people who will use it,” concludes Decaens.