By merely stepping into a darkened booth, gripping a couple of handles and pushing a “trigger” with their thumbs, workers one day may be able to virtually try on protective clothing and equipment and find the perfect fit.
The procedure, which uses a body scanner, is being developed as a high-tech alternative to the time-consuming and often frustrating process of finding clothes that emphasize best body features and minimize flaws. According to Rinn Cloud, Ph.D., the Mary Gibbs Jones Endowed Chair in Textiles at Baylor University, body scanners are the future not only of fashion, but of protective clothing and equipment for workers, as well.
Cloud has been researching the efficacy, use and misuse of protective clothing for nearly 30 years. Although body scanners were developed some 20 years ago, they just now are reaching the stage where they can be useful for the types of applications sought by Cloud.
“If protective clothing is uncomfortable, workers can’t perform their tasks and they won’t wear it,” she says, “When we test protective clothing, we do it to the manufacturers’ specifications and that’s fine. But that’s not always how workers are using it or wearing it.”
For the purposes of Cloud’s research, subjects step into a curtained dressing room for privacy, don form-fitting clothes such as bike shorts and a tank top or sports bra, then step into an octagonal chamber. They plant their feet on the markers, hold their arms out to the side to clasp handles and push a button. White lights flash and 32 cameras capture a 360-degree image with hundreds of measurements – all in less than 30 seconds.
Once they emerge from the booth, a high-resolution, three-dimensional body shape is displayed on a computer screen. With a little clicking and dragging of the computer’s mouse, the avatar-like image can be rotated, enlarged, panned and tilted forward and backward, and virtual clothing can be wrapped around the body.
With the scanner providing cross sections, surface areas and “slices” of the body, consumers can provide detailed body information that allows design and production of tailor-made clothes at reasonable prices. Ready-to-wear clothes also will be improved as nationwide data bases of 3D scan information will allow apparel developers to accommodate such traits as short waists or wide hips.
For example, “The issues [for workers] in the medical field are fit, comfort, mobility and how quickly you can get the protective garment on and off,” says Cloud, who specifically is researching design of surgical and isolation gowns. “If you’re a nurse treating a bleeding patient, but the fluid-resistant gown is preventing your movements, there’s more of a chance you won’t wear it.”
The body scanner does not look “through” clothing, like the ones in use at airports. The images Cloud hopes to grab are ones related to how people move to perform their tasks and how the clothing fits their bodies.
“Added bulk in clothing around joints is particularly important,” says Cloud. “The more bulk we add around joints, the less mobility and range of motion we have.”
Cloud says that often, this inhibited range of motion is what leads workers to make their own accommodations, something she and a colleague call “user wear management.”
EHS professionals all have seen the results of workers utilizing scissors to “fix” the fit on protective coveralls by chopping off cuffs, creating air holes for venting and cutting slits through the shoulders for more mobility of the arms and upper body. “We need to pay attention to what Individual workers do to ‘manage’ their protective clothing. They don’t wear it or they modify it. The way they use or modify their protective clothing reveals to us what the issues are,” says Cloud.
One of the first volunteers to step into Baylor’s booth, Dr. Jay Yoo, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences who teaches fashion theory and consumer behavior at Baylor, gave a heads-up to wannabe users.
“Unless you’re a super-model, the scan is unforgiving,” he said. “It’s one thing for 18- to 22-year-old students to do this, but when I got in there, I took a deep breath and held my stomach in.”