AMES — Walking into the Labs for Functional Textiles and Protective Clothing at Iowa State University, the first things one might notice are the piles upon piles of heavy-duty gloves meant to protect firefighters.
This is where ISU professor Guowen Song and student researchers are working to improve upon this most basic gear for first-responders — gloves intended to protect against searing heat and sharp objects, and as a result too cumbersome for maneuverability.
“The current gloves are not really designed to meet the basic elements of protection, comfort and functionality,” Song said. “Firefighters lose more than 50 percent of their manual dexterity while wearing these gloves, and that can create a risk to their safety. With our research and the technology we are developing and have access to, we are focusing on these challenges to develop the next generation of personal protective equipment.”
The three-year project is funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The goal, Song said, is to gain a deeper understanding of the interactions between the body, clothing and various materials when exposed to different extreme conditions, including extreme heat, and to use that knowledge as the foundation for the design and development of the next generation of gear.
Achieving that goal requires a collaborative approach between researchers in textiles and clothing design, human physiology, computer simulations, mechanical, chemical and biochemical engineering — as well as fire departments and manufacturers.
If successful, Song said, the glove research could be just the beginning. In the next stage, he said, researchers want to apply what they learn to other types of protective gear, such as boots and helmets, for firefighters and other emergency responders.
Need for nimble
Personal protective equipment, or what firefighters call turnout gear, includes gloves, boots, pants, a jacket and a helmet, said Cedar Rapids Assistant Fire Chief of Operation Andy Olesen. Many of those are bulky and heavy.
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“There’s two big issues when it comes to the protective gear,” he said. “One, and the most obvious, is how much heat can the gear absorb before it fails and the wearer gets burned.
“But the second component of that is functionality. You know, firefighting is obviously done in hot environments, and it’s physically demanding labor, so your gear also has to have some breathability, as well as allow for movement so firefighters can actually do what they need to do. ... At a most basic level, firefighters have to be able to swing an ax, or pull hose, and they have to be able to manipulate hand tools. So there’s got to be some flexibility and dexterity in the gloves we wear.”
Researchers learned hand injuries are some of the most common injuries firefighters endure, said Rui Li, who is managing the research lab and attending ISU as a graduate student.
Because firefighting jobs are so hand-heavy, burns, cuts, bruises and abrasions are not uncommon. But when a task calls for fine-motor skills, Li said it might force firefighters to remove their gloves to improve dexterity, thus risking injury.
“And a hand injury can quickly end a firefighter’s career,” Olesen said.
In the past two years, Olesen said two Cedar Rapids firefighters have injured their hands.
One firefighter, he said, was injured while administering medical treatment to a car-crash victim. Olesen said other rescue personnel were working to extricate the victim when the firefighter “put his hand in a place it shouldn’t be,” and cut it. The firefighter wasn’t wearing the thick protective gloves at the time, Olesen said, as dexterity was needed to administer medical care.
In the second injury, a firefighter was ventilating a room after a fire was put down. As the firefighter was breaking out a window, Olesen said, a large shard of glass fell on the back of the firefighter’s hand, cutting through the glove. The injury required stitches.
Technology at work
That’s where testing comes in, Song said. Using newly developed models and high-tech equipment, Song and his team are looking at multiple aspects including material, fit, breathability, sensitivity and fabric strength to see how those factors could combine to provide protection without sacrificing function.
Using a sweating hand model, Song and Li have conducted a series of experiments to measure how parts of the hand and fingers respond to heat, wind and cold. The database they created will provide a foundation for the team’s work to develop a model.
For example, the database shows how cold affects the forefinger and the pinkie finger differently. The researchers can use this information to select and design materials for the glove to maximize protection and comfort. In a 2017 study, published in Textile Research Journal, Song and his colleagues found the combination of moisture from sweating and heat interacting with different protective fabric systems can contribute to skin burn injuries — another factor to consider.
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The sweating hand model sweats like a human hand so researchers can test the performance of different materials. His lab also is equipped with a full-size sweating mannequin to test for comfort with all types of protective gear. In the Lab for Heat and Thermal Protection Research, Song can test how textiles respond to hazards.
In the end, Song said he hopes the research will not only lead to improving gloves, but also to knowledge for developing the entire personal protective system.
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