Those who experienced the floods in the UK last summer know first-hand how adverse weather conditions can strike anyone at any time. Okay, so the UK is not known for having a particularly pleasant climate, but ultimately no one is free from the risk of unpredictable weather, wherever they live. And this makes year-round foul weather clothing absolutely essential for the millions of workers who battle the elements on a daily basis.
Fit for all seasons
Providing your workforce with foul weather wear for all seasons doesn’t have to equate to a huge, cumbersome wardrobe. Sioen NV, one of Europe’s market leaders in protective clothing, offers a range of flexible garments that can protect against conditions, from mild summer rain to torrential downpours, wind and snow.
We have developed the 'ILS concept' or 'Interchangeable Lining System'," says Bart Vervaecke, CEO of Sioen NV’s apparel division. “This means that the user can zip a fleece or body warmer into the jacket to give him extra protection against the cold if needed. The fleece also comes in various types: single layer, double layer bounded or laminated, which will give extra protection against the wind. All this makes the garment ‘multi functional’ and will give full satisfaction throughout the year.”
The garment comes from a foul weather range that is made from Flexothane or Siopor fabric. Used for rain jackets, rain trousers, parkas and coveralls, Flexothane’s polyurethane outer coating on a stretchable knitted base is water and windproof, 150% stretchable, highly tear resistant and noiseless. Siopor, however, is an inside coated fabric – its micro-porous layer combines with a hydrophilic polyurethane layer to keep you warm and dry, making it ideal for parka jackets and fleeces. This machine-washable fabric is also completely water and windproof, with a high degree of breathability that makes the garment comfortable for working in all weather conditions.
“We also advise wearers to use appropriate underwear, as the multi-layering concept gives enhanced comfort to the wearer,” adds Bart. For this purpose, Sioen NV has developed ‘Sio-fit’ underwear, which can also be used in all weathers and worn beneath their breathable T-shirts or polo shirts.
Cosalt International Ltd also provides foul weather gear that is suitable for use all-year round. The company is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of personal protective equipment (PPE) and workwear, supplying PPE to over 30,000 personnel within the rail industry.
For many of those workers, a layering system is vital as business development director Tony McGovern points out: “Rail track replacement workers who have a limited time to get the job done can sometimes be kept waiting around for hours. Warmth is very important to them, so they tend to have our zip in fleece or body warmer inside a waterproof and breathable GORE-TEX® foul weather jacket. The jacket has a dual purpose: it is there for you to wear on a chilly day but it can also withstand heavy rain. Beneath the jacket they will also wear GORE-TEX® windstopper underwear, which protects against the chill factor.”
Cosalt International also supplies lightweight and heavyweight under-trousers in polyester cotton, GORE-TEX® over trousers and GORE-TEX® breathable footwear. “We provide products that work with each other to allow the track worker to breathe,” Tony says.
Setting the standard
Breathability and waterproofness are key when it comes to determining whether a garment can officially be described as PPE. All garments that claim to protect the health and safety of the wearer must conform to European standard EN343 for rain protection and be CE labelled. Under EN343, waterproofness is indicated by three classes, where one is the lowest and three the highest. For class three, the fabric and seams are tested in a water column of 1,300mm.
Cosalt International, however, is committed to surpassing these legislative requirements without compromising on wearer comfort and fit. Working in close partnership with suppliers such as W L Gore & Associates, manufacturers of GORE-TEX® and WINDSTOPPER® fabrics, the company also tests its garments against European standard 14360. This defines test conditions under which ready-made garments are exposed to artificial heavy rain. Gore associate Henri Bryan says: “We are very proud of our quality management process, which is unique in our industry. At every step, from research through to design and manufacturing, we ensure that GORE-TEX® products are best in class.”
Sioen NV also tests its garments in-house to beyond the required standard. Bart says: “We believe that garments shouldn't be ‘a little bit waterproof’ – they should be fully waterproof and they should continue to be so during the lifecycle of the product. That's why, internally, our requirements are 2,000mm and we do an additional special intensive pre-treatment test to simulate ageing on our garments, even though this is not required by EN 343.”
Breathability is also divided into three classes within EN 343, but compared to waterproofness it is more subjective. Bart says: “This is because breathability depends highly on the outer temperature and humidity. The type of activity the wearer carries out, his own physical fitness, the weight, suppleness and thickness of the garment etc will also contribute to the wearer’s comfort.”
On the right track
One of the biggest and most regulated sectors in the UK foul weather wear market is the rail industry, and Cosalt International’s rigorous testing has helped it to secure 40 to 50% of it. The company kits out workers employed by Network Rail, Amey and First Engineering, as well as various smaller companies and agency staff.
This is no mean feat considering that, in addition to EN regulations, Cosalt International’s garments must meet the rail industry’s own standard of quality known as GORT3279, as well as Network Rail’s own rules, which state that, from June 2008, all foul weather wear worn by those working on their tracks must conform to the latest EN373: 2003 and be class three breathable and class three waterproof.
Talking to those who wear the clothes is also vital when it comes to providing the right garment for the right job. At the first stage in all major contracts, Cosalt International undertakes an independent design review, interviewing workers in the field, to gauge the effectiveness of its clothing range. Employees are invited to rate the comfort, fit, movement and appearance of Cosalt PPE and give feedback on the ease of care of the garments, as well as their ability to keep the wearer dry in bad weather. Tony says: “The opinions and ideas of the workers who wear our clothes on the track are invaluable to us, and have been central to our success in securing deals within the rail sector.”
If foul weather protection is combined with hi-visibility protection then EN471: 2003, which is the latest EN standard for high-visibility, is also applicable. Limited visibility caused by bad weather conditions and jobs that involve working at all times of the day and night mean that this is often necessary.
Cosalt International’s foul weather ranges work in tandem with its high-visibility gear, and a number of Sioen NV’s foul weather garments also provide extra protection. “Every occupation has its specific needs, so the garment should be 'fit for purpose' for the specific job,” says Bart. “We can therefore add coating substrates to a garment that meets EN 343 and EN 471 standards in order to also make the garment antistatic, flame retardant or grease or chemical repellent.”
Finding the Right Garment
Okay, so you have a shortlist of foul weather garments that all meet the required EN standards, but how do you sort the good from the great? Tony says that a great product is one that can be maintained for a reasonable period of time. “You need to make sure that the garment can actually go through an industrial wash process in order to be clean. It’s not just the fabric that matters – if, for example, it has a cheap reflective tape, it won’t go through the tunnel to dry. Instead, it will become damaged and probably peel off of the stitching.”
He adds: “It is important to make sure that you buy a product that has been seam sealed correctly, otherwise it will leak. Gore inspect all our factories that manufacture the product to check exactly how we seam seal it, and in turn we also have it wash tested at major industrial laundering companies in the UK, so you’re not just buying and replacing it prematurely if it’s dirty. There are currently garments out there with Network Rail that are over four years old.”
The design of the garment can also be modified where necessary to include features such as wind cuffs, kneepad protection and reinforcements. Tony says: “A lot of effort goes into making sure that the actual features in our garments support what the wearer requires when he is out working. For example, when you open up one of our GORE-TEX® jackets, there is a handy zipped-up pocket to the side to put your mobile phone in. The depth and strength of the pockets are also designed to hold the papers and documents that the wearer needs to carry around with them.”
Bart adds: “You should check the capacity of the manufacturer and, considering that 3% of the population has an extreme size, their flexibility to deal with this. Personalising possibilities including logos and the development of a bespoke style is also something to think about.”
The Future of Foul Weather Wear
So what does the future hold for foul weather wear? “We are seeing that comfort aspects are becoming more important, and that lightweight jackets and stretchable garments with a better shape will become more popular,” says Bart. “Heavier fabrics, such as canvas-type garments that are used in workwear, will also find their way into foul weather clothing, because they are more abrasion resistant.”
And, according to Bart’s predictions, getting caught in a rainstorm doesn’t mean wearers are willing to let their fashion sense fly out of the window. “We also believe that the 'look' is becoming more important: wearers want their jacket not only to be good but also to look good. It’s about balancing the technical requirements with the outdoor or sportswear look, like in our Dynamic range. We also decided to make this range in women's sizes as well, which has been seen as a big asset in the market and a unique selling proposition.”
However, he thinks that the main shift is that buyers are beginning to prize value over price. “We have seen the trend changing from cheap imported products to better quality garments that last longer and are produced by a garment manufacturer who knows what he's doing.”
So there you have it – it’s the garments that go the distance come rain, wind or shine that we should be seeking out as our foul weather friends.