As workplace health and safety becomes an increasingly high profile issue and as workers become more aware of their rights, the personal protective equipment (PPE) market has seen steady growth.

At Vermilion, a clothing supplier with extensive PPE experience, operations director Reg Adair estimates market turnover to be £55-60million at customer prices, and growing by around 10%yearly.

End product

Protective clothing falls into two types: the first protects individuals from hazards, and the second, which includes healthcare and food processing, prevents the worker contaminating the end product.

Hazard-protective clothing covers a wide range of industries, but can be divided into broad categories such as high-visibility (high-vis), flame retardancy, chemical spillage and antistatic. These may well be combined in one garment.

Levels of protection must meet strict European standards. At fabric specialist, Klopman International, Søren Healy, European sales manager for protectivewear fabrics, points out that since 1995 it has been illegal to sell protective garments that are not CE marked.

While each country will have its own national standard marking, the standards themselves are pan-European. Both finished garments and their individual components must conform to appropriate standards. Standards are reviewed and revised at regular intervals.

Developments within the PPE market, which frequently start with the textiles, stem from several factors: greater awareness of the range of risks employees may face; increased need for multi-protection; and the narrowing divide between workwear and high-street retail that has brought a realisation that protective wear can be comfortable.

If garments are not comfortable, says Søren Healy, employees may not wear them correctly, for example they may wear jackets with the fastenings undone Such ideas are not new. Materials such as Nomex were developed long before European regulations stepped in, but they were high cost and thus availability was limited to a select few. In the past, workers may have been under protected.

Now cost objections are being overcome. New multi-protective blends are being considered, such as Megatec which is accredited to EN531/En470-1 for flame retardancy, EN1149 for anti-staticity and EN368/prEn13034 for liquid chemical repellency.

Importantly, says Søren Healy, such fabrics are situated between traditional low-cost flame retardant fabrics, usually finished, and the high-cost end where flame retardancy is inherent.

New blends have also been developed in other areas. Klopman has developed Luminex C1, a high-vis material conforming to EN471, but using a cotton-rich, 60/40% mix.

At fabric specialist company, John Heathcoat, Peter Moses, general manager careerwear and protective fabrics, identifies three areas of special concern.

The first is chemical repellency, and in particular petrol, which is difficult to protect against. After extensive research the company has produced, Petrogard, tested to the relevant standard, EN368. It can be applied to a variety of fabrics including those that are flame retardant, and will withstand industrial laundering at 40deg C, with thorough rinsing, normal tumble drying or tunnel finishing.


In the large, but highly competitive high-vis market, Heathcoat has sought to differentiate itself from the bottom end by concentrating on multi-protection, combining high-vis with both flame retardancy and the Petrogard finish.

The third area that Heathcoat identifies is antibacterial protection. Concern about cross-contamination in healthcare and food processing has led textile manufacturers to develop special finishes which inhibit bacteria growth.

Lauffenmühle is also working in this area and has developed Biotec, claimed to be the first workwear fabric to combine antistatic and antimicrobial properties. It is capable of withstanding 50 industrial washes. New industries and technologies may bring new risks. Lauffenmühle is introducing, e-care, a textile that will protect wearers from electro-smog. Peter Cook of Lauffenmühle’s UK agent, Peco, says that e-care is so new that the company has only started to explore potential applications, but he believes that the debate over mobile phone safety could open up a range of uses.

The increased use of PPE and the development of evermore specialised fabrics, raises the question of how such clothing should be maintained.

Peter Cook says that he has always believed that rental laundries could do more to explore this area profitably, he admits that the garments do pose laundering problems, but points out that the alternative is that the customer uses disposables.

High-vis is one of the larger PPE sectors. Helen Antcliffe, marketing executive of 3M personal safety, a major producer of reflective tape, says that the market ranges from cheap disposable waistcoats to high spec garments worn by the emergency services.

It is at this mid to top-end, says Helen Antcliff that the question of laundering arises, and her company has produced the 99/20 tape that withstands industrial laundering.

Traditionally, she says, end-users such as fire departments, bought the garments and took responsibility for care and maintenance.

Proper planning

Now some laundries are teaming up with garment suppliers, to offer care and maintenance programmes to specific customers. If properly planned, such arrangements can work well but it does raise questions says Helen Antcliff as to who takes responsibility.

Indeed the whole question of care of PPE could be said to be controversial. At Klopman, Søren Healy says that the European standards do not go particularly far on the care side and in some cases the standard may only require that garments can withstand three to five washes.

Now the need for more stringent durability standards is being recognised and Europe’s standardisation committees are responding.

Klopman has had extensive involvement with the rental market, and ensures that all fabrics will withstand at least 50 wash cycles. Its technical services department issues laundering guidelines.

But perhaps the real opportunities lie in specialist technical laundering operations.

John Cole is reclamation manager UK for Rentokil Wiper Services, a specialist division within the Rentokil-Initial Group that has been involved in the reclamation and cleaning for a range of PPE, and has recently moved into offering this service in the high-vis market. The care requirements are very specific and the company has developed special processes, working on detergents, wash temperatures and drying processes and has worked closely with garment and tape suppliers.

He stresses that, while some cleaners do dabble in this area, his company deals only with the cleaning of high-vis and PPE. The processes it has developed for high-vis make sure garments retain their reflective performance to EN471. The service, which includes recovering dirty garments from site, cleaning and recycling them, also claims benefits over using disposables, saving both the cost of disposal and of regular replacement.

At PPE specialist, Uvex, UK operation manager for workwear, Jim Hanna also expresses concerns about the laundering aspect, particularly in niche areas such as flame retardancy.

Garments must be correctly laundered, for example all grease and oil must be removed, otherwise they can be a “time bomb”. Some laundry processes may affect the chemical treatments Pyrotex and Proban, used to achieve flame retardancy. For example bleach cannot be used on either finish, and an acid-sour rinse cannot be used with Pyrotex.

There is a wide variance, he says, of the understanding of how laundering can affect garment safety, both among end users and even in some laundries. His company does try to counter this by issuing very precise instructions.

Specialisation may be the answer. Certainly, fire brigades are now going down this route for their fire-fighting kit. Lion Apparel Systems, the UK arm of the Stateside company, operates a full garment lease, care and maintenance programme for London, Hereford and Warwickshire fire brigades, and laundering for the Oxford brigade.

The programme covers the complete fire kit including boots and helmets. Garments are manufactured to EN standards, by a sister company in Waterford, Ireland. The total care concept starts with the quality of the garment.

On the care side, Lion has set up specialised procedures with the aid of Miele and also fabric manufacturers. The company has had to find cleaning procedures that suit reasonably low temperatures and also specific detergents and programs. Many standard procedures, such as bleaching are unsuitable. The washing operation has also had to be adjusted, based on smaller loads, say up to 12 items per load. Clothes are dried naturally in a separate room. After each process, garments are inspected for fitness of use and are also batch tested for safety with Lion recording a detailed history of each garment.