Dress for success... and, more importantly, for safety

Dress for success... and, more importantly, for safety

By Gaby Grammeno on 12 February 2018 "Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life," American fashion photographer Bill Cunningham famously said.

Hmmm, well, maybe. But clothes can certainly be the 'armour' that makes a difference as to whether an individual survives the reality of everyday working life. And, in some cases, that can quite literally be true. 

Whether it's a blacksmith’s leather apron, hairnets in factories, or an astronaut’s space suit, protection from the hazards of the job has a high profile when it comes to outfits designed to help manage workplace health and safety risks. For example, a great deal of effort and energy has gone into improving the protective capability of the clothing worn by Australian scientists working in the Antarctic. The recommended wear for such assignments has undergone a dramatic evolution over the last century of work in the extreme climates of polar regions. 

The challenge was that the work often required staff to undertake physical activities strenuous enough to mean that 75% of the body’s heat would be generated internally by their physical exertion, despite the freezing temperatures, so the clothing had to allow release of excess heat to the air but still provide protection from the cold. Fabrics and designs currently used have benefited from hundreds of hours of experiments in custom-made wind tunnels and climate chambers in health research institutes, and the benefits have flowed over to the wider community, for example, in skiwear and winter attire generally. 

Disputes arise in relation to work uniforms and clothing requirements on a regular basis. An issue arose, for example, when firefighters and some other workers experienced rashes, dermatitis and other skin reactions in response to a fire-retardant chemical that had been used to treat the fabric of the new uniforms they were required to wear on fire calls. 

The need to dress for comfort in the face of climatic conditions is a perennial bone of contention. The question of whether to allow personnel to wear short-sleeved shirts in tropical locations – where protection from the sun and from mosquitoes might make long-sleeved shirts more appropriate – simmers on. This conflict can only be resolved by a careful balancing of the particular requirements of the job and the opportunities to take advantage of shade, the season, and day-to-day weather fluctuations.

An issue of a different kind altogether concerns the wearing of clothing dictated by particular religious affiliations, for example, a turban worn by a Sikh man or a niqab (a veil concealing the face from the eyes down) worn by a Muslim woman. 

A Sikh man’s turban has emerged as a dilemma at times in relation to jobs requiring the wearing of a helmet or other headgear incompatible with a turban, for example, by construction workers or motorcycle-mounted postal delivery employees. Face veils have been the subject of media attention with regard to staff working in schools, as well as students who express a desire to adopt face-covering attire. This is usually less of a safety issue than an issue of communication and effectiveness on the job, though communication may be an element of job safety, in many situations.

A controversy erupted in Britain over teachers wearing face-veils when it was announced in 2016 that Muslim women could be banned from wearing face veils in schools. Despite the protests and vehement expression of opinions for and against, leading British Islamic scholar, Dr Sheikh Hojjat Ramzy, maintains that children need to see their teachers' facial expressions. He was reported as saying that even for the strictest Muslims, education must be paramount, and when it comes to communicating with small children, facial expressions are essential because ‘a picture paints a thousand words’.

Less controversially, public opinion in recent years has rejected workplace dress codes that require women to wear high-heeled shoes and otherwise dress in ways designed to appeal to male clients and customers, rather than in garments and footwear that is comfortable and practical for themselves.

Whatever the nature of the work, dress codes and uniforms must be reasonable, suited to the needs of the job, and consistent with worker safety, health and wellbeing.



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