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Fire and ice: underwear for the elements
Feature: 3/11/2007

Enlarge Image click hereFoul weather coats. Flame retardant jackets. Anti-static trousers. Non-slip shoes. Face masks. Eye protectors. Workwear comes in many, many forms for all kinds of uses, but there is one element that is often forgotten: protective underwear.

It's not hard to guess why, of course; when it comes to direct dangers, most people look to their outer layers to protect them. But the reality is that what goes under those layers can frequently be just as important.

This is especially true when dealing with nature's two extremes - fire and ice.

The dangers of heat
Stuart Jukes, UK Sales Director of clothing company Praybourne, Enlarge Image click hereexplained: "Most people think of injury from fire coming purely from direct contact with the flame, but that isn't true.

"While outer garments help protect from direct contact, there is still danger from radiant and convective heat, which can pass through clothing to harm the skin.

"For example, if a worker digging up a road was wearing a polyester football shirt underneath his work clothes and he hit a major power cable, the radiant heat from the resulting flash fire could cause the polyester to melt into his skin."

According to Stuart, flash fires such as these can range from 600 to 3,000+ degrees - and although the heat is momentary, the damage can be long lasting indeed.

Customers from numerous industries
"People have to understand that the fabric that touches your skin Enlarge Image click hereis probably the most important," he said. "Although you need the outer garment, you also need the dual-layer protection of the underwear."

While fire fighters wear pure cotton underwear because their outer layer is so comprehensive, Praybourne does see a lot of interest in police, petrochemical companies, power line workers and even road workers who might hit gas or electricity mains.

"We even have people working on sides of motorways wearing our underwear, because they are welding and grinding, and using blowtorches to put white lines on the road; it's better to be overprotective than underprotective."

Keeping out the chill
But fire is the most obviously destructive element. What about the cold? Surely thermal underwear isn't that important? Stuart disagrees.

"If it wasn't important, Enlarge Image click hereorganisations like on-road Government agencies wouldn't use it. Before they started using thermal underwear, wearers were complaining about the bitter cold, especially when working at night.

"We have many enquiries for padded or lines trousers but if you're wearing padded trousers and you go inside an area that is heated, you begin to sweat.

"The moment you go back out, the sweat makes you feel cold, whereas our thermal underwear wicks the moisture away. Also, if you're in and out of vehicles all day, you want to be as comfortable and free moving as possible - which means no padded trousers."

He added that thermal underwear has more obvious uses in cold storage companies, where workers may be in sub-zero temperatures for prolonged periods of time, and for workers out in cold, wet conditions such as those working up pylons and other areas where wind chill is a facctor.

Careful designs
Not that the underwear is any use if it doesn't fit properly - and given its closeness to the skin, having a comfortable design is paramount. So how do they do it?

The first thing, it seems, is to avoid unisex garments. "We have tops and bottoms cut especially for men and women. Unisex tops and bottoms don't work because they don't fit anyone properly.

"In the case of thermal underwear, this can affect the transport of moisture in addition to heat retention. In the case of FR underwear, the worst-case scenario is that the worker doesn't wear it because it's simply not comfortable."

As a result, the company is careful to give a square-torso cut for men and a curved one for women, to better suit their relative frames, with added elastane providing three percent stretching power for a snug fit.

They also use thumb loops at the ends of the sleeves, which ensures that the sleeves remain extended while the wearer slips on his or her outer layers. This way, the wearer can be sure that they are fully protected at all times.

Currently available
So what does Praybourne currently have on the shelf? In terms of thermal protection, their Xcelsius Enlarge Image click hererange begins with 100 percent cotton tops and bottoms, which are useful for people allergic to synthetic fibres.

Also, although it lacks true FR protection, the fact that cotton does not melt means that it can be used as a value-for-money undergarment for workers who are unlikely to come into contact with fire hazards.

Next up is a 50/50 polyester/viscose mix, which is warm and soft and is suitable for outdoor use down to freezing point.

However, if more rigorous thermal properties are required, the Ultratherm garments are ISO tested to minus 15 degrees and incorporate Viloft viscose for insultation and moisture wicking. These latter garments are brushed inside for extra warmth.

Finally, there is Megatherm, also made using Viloft fibres but with an extra-brushed interior that makes it suitable for extreme climates where the temperature is consistently between minus 15 and minus 25 degrees, such as frozen food packaging and storage.

The advantages of in-built protection
On the FR side, Praybourne uses the Protex inherently flame retardant fibres in its underwear. Stuart said: "We don't believe in treated fabrics because they can wash out at any stage, especially since most people use boil washes even if you tell them not to. Also, chemical treatments can sometimes cause rashes and trigger eczema."

The entry-level garment has Protex blended with cotton in a 60/40 ratio, with elastane in the garments to reduce stretching and sagging - the tighter the clothing is, the better it is able to work.

There is also the option for new blend of Protex mixed with Viloft and Beltron antistatic, which is useful for workers who have to be around fuel, gas or any other flammable sources. The company now offers the antistatic element for nearly the same price as its old Protex/Viloft mix.

"The FR underwear is especially popular with the police, who need to be able to go out into riots while petrol bombs are being hurled at them," said Stuart.

"In fact, they wear our underwear when doing petrol bomb training - there was a moment not so long ago when an officer's uniform failed during training and without our underwear he would have suffered second or third degree burns."

Author: James Wilkinson
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