IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Analysis of the Potential Application of Smart Textiles to Occupational Health and Safety


Smart textiles are materials that can detect, react and adapt to a wide range of stimuli, including electric, magnetic, thermal, optical, acoustic, mechanical and chemical. They have very promising potential uses in occupational health and safety, such as for integrated tracking systems, monitoring of workers’ physiological condition, integrated heating and cooling systems, communication devices and energy capture. The goal of this study was to summarize the state of knowledge based on the technical and scientific literature to identify technologies, solutions and products on the smart textile market that could be applied in occupational health and safety (OHS) and to highlight possible avenues for research and development in this area.

The first stage of the study involved analysing the scientific and technical literature, investigating online resources and establishing contacts with textile manufacturers. Over 500 references to technologies, solutions and products relating to smart flexible textiles and materials were reviewed. These references included over 60 Canadian companies involved in various aspects of smart textiles. Technologies, solutions and products were divided into three broad categories:

  • Sensors, with the input signal being the focus of interest. Examples are textile sensors for temperature, gas, deformation or positioning, or electrodes integrated into textiles.
  • Indicators/actuators, with the output signal being the focus of interest. Examples are heating fibres, antibacterial fabrics, textile screens, piezomorphic fabrics, self-cleaning surfaces, an automatic defibrillator integrated into apparel and photovoltaic fibres.
  • Materials and components. Polymers, carbon, metals, inks, connectors, antennae, etc., that are used to produce smart textiles.

The second stage of the study consisted in drawing up an inventory of OHS needs related to the limitations of traditional textiles, the properties of which are permanent and cannot be adjusted to adapt to changing conditions. This information was obtained from OHS resource officers, such as prevention specialists in joint or professional sector-based associations, representatives of manufacturing companies and safety equipment users, and OHS researchers. The highlighted needs included thermoregulation systems for highly protective clothing used in extreme environments or for intense activities, chemical sensors integrated into coats or coveralls for detecting and quantifying cases of exposure, vital sign sensors with geopositioning capability integrated into clothing for isolated or confined-space workers, and protective gloves with adjustable levels of protection and dexterity depending on the task to be done.

In the third stage, current or anticipated issues with the use of smart textiles in OHS were defined. These include the lack of maturity of the technologies, potential adverse effects on health and safety, potential interference or incompatibility problems, lack of knowledge, standards and test methods, accessibility difficulties, problems with textile use and maintenance, lack of confirmed interest in the technology, and appropriate waste and end-of-life management.

By cross-checking the information gathered, we were able to determine short-, medium- and long-term avenues for development for many of the issues raised. For instance, a short-term response to the need for better thermoregulation of clothing could be based on the use of commercial sports products to alert workers when their vital signs indicate a condition of thermal stress. In the medium term, existing technologies such as phase-change materials could be integrated into clothing in the form of removable components. Ultimately, the solution would be fully integrated into the textiles, threads or fibres; it would make long-term thermal regulation possible and offer good resistance to extreme environment working conditions (e.g., fire protection), wear and tear, and laundering.

The analysis done for this study shows that smart flexible textiles and materials offer promising responses to the many problems associated with OHS protective clothing and equipment. In addition, it is worth noting that the manufacturing and research capabilities required in the area of smart textiles to carry out the projects proposed here already exist in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.

Additional Information

Category: Research Report
  • Patricia Dolez
  • Justine Decaens
  • Thibault Buns
  • Dominic Lachapelle
  • Olivier Vermeersch
  • Jacek Mlynarek
Research Project: 2016-0028
Online since: October 01, 2018
Format: Text