Hot working bras

Amended 7/15/2008:
I do not endorse Beverly’s bra pattern making service, nor any services she offers to entrepreneurs and profoundly regret that I ever did.

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I just love Beverly and her bra blog, there’s always so much useful information there. Beverly is so modest she failed to mention that she got some ink in the most recent issue of Canadian Apparel magazine in an article entitled Fire resistant bra developed in Canada. I’m guilty of having known about Beverly’s work on a fire proof bra -which solves problems specific to female utility workers (electrical trades, welding etc)- but failed to write about it mostly because I couldn’t think of a snazzy title. With a product like that, some sort of pun in the title is obligatory, don’t you agree? If you’re like me, you may think this bra’s utility is limited but consider how Beverly describes the demand for the product:

No sooner did we get the first ones out on the website, when we had all kinds of women come out of the woodwork asking if this bra would specifically protect them in their profession. I include some of them here: glass blowers, steel workers, linesmen(women?), utility workers, nuclear plant workers, forest fire-fighters, auto factory workers, electric meter readers, welders, metal workers, air force pilots, army, navy, marines, goldsmiths, miners, and restaurant cooks (that last one struck me funny too, but think about how many fires happen in a restaurant kitchen).

In the CAM article, the situation is described thusly:

Two workers, one male and one female, are on the job. Which one will be burnt more severely in the event of an electric arc flash?
If you guessed the woman, you’d be correct. The nature of arc flashes dictates that the closer to the source, the more intense the energy. Generally speaking, women’s arms are shorter than men’s, so women are working closer to the source. In addition, a woman’s bust line projects into the danger zone between the two arms, escalating the chance of breast burns when an electric arc flash occurs. So a woman’s breasts are particularly at risk for more severe burns. Regulations are in place for protective shirts or overalls while on the job. Surely a protective flame-resistant outer layer will provide protection to the garments underneath. Or will it?


You can read the rest of the article on Canadian Apparel Magazine‘s website but you are forewarned that the site design impinges upon readability; it’s awful! Just why do companies do this? I can think of no better way to ensure that people won’t read your material than doing these sorts of things. If you’d prefer to skip the experience (in all fairness, it is a great magazine), here’s an excerpt of an email Beverly sent me that explains the details. Beverly tells stories nicely I think.

My DE (design entrepreneur) Hugh Hoagland is really and truly the world’s expert on electric arc burns, and as such, has had to appear as a witness in court to testify about arc burns and if they could have been prevented. In other words, a company tries to prove it was worker carelessness or failure to comply with regulations that caused the injury, and then it’s not their liability (“it’s your own darn fault you got burnt to bits!”). Hugh is always for the defence of these workers…GREAT GUY!!! You know, regulations are in place for fire-protective shirts or FR (fire resistant) overalls while on the job. Every employee has to wear the protective clothing. But in 1997, two incidents happened to female employees that no one ever thought would happen.

Hugh told me this story when we first met: “In 1997 I received two different calls regarding female utility workers in Washington State in the US. These two women had suffered a similar fate. Both women had been performing routine service jobs, i.e., placing a meter in a socket, when an arc flash occurred. One lady had a molten metal droplet from the resulting electric arc fall into her cleavage area and ignite her bra. It burned back about two inches before she could get her shirt off to extinguish it. She was wearing a flame-resistant cotton shirt over a polyester/cotton bra. The other lady was performing the same operation when she received a much larger arc flash. She was wearing a lightweight Nomex shirt and her 100% polyester bra melted all over the front of her chest. In both cases, the shirt did not burn but the bra did. A flame resistant bra would have saved the first lady any burns and would have lessened the pain and suffering and permanent damage to the second lady.” These two separate incidents convinced Hugh that there was a need for fire-proof undergarments.

When he first told me he wanted a FR bra, I immediately thought of what a great thing it would be for firefighters. He then said, ” well, that’s not what it’s for, really, although it could be used for them, too” and went on to tell me the story of the two ladies burnt in an electric arc flash. I had no idea how many other occupations where female workers are routinely are at risk from electric arcing. I swear, I actually had NO idea these things existed, can happen in a millisecond, or is it nanosecond, and , here’s the important part….can burn cotton and/or polyester undergarments even if the outer layer does not ignite. This statement bears a more technical explanation.

As most may know, synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, acetate and PVC will melt at relatively low temperatures and can actually melt on the body in industrial accidents. For this reason, safety officers have recommended that workers wear only natural fibre undergarments such as cotton, wool or silk, under their flame-resistant clothing. However, an electric arc’s explosive nature can “break open” the outer fibre layer and ignite the inner core, causing extensive burns. But the inherent danger of electric arcs is their tendency to “track” on the skin, which puts the impact of the heat energy underneath the outer garment. There is a very real possibility of flash fire accidents even when the outer clothing layer has not ignited. So, while workers are wearing regulation fire resistant shirts, protection from this type of burn has to start with the undergarments.

So he found me, and our first meeting, I was totally impressed with his commitment, right up until the part when he said “my wife sews, and she thought we could just use a {insert your favourite home sewing pattern company’s name here} pattern and whip up a few” GASP!!!

I then (calmly and rationally) explained the whole process. We do NOT use home sewing patterns. We find the fabric, we draft, we test, we fit, we produce. I would responsible for the overall design and fit of the bra and its production; while Hugh was responsible for overseeing its technical performance in the burn lab. After two years of wash-and-wear testing and fit trials, the ArcBra was tested at the Kinetrics Lab in Toronto to an arc rating (ATPV) of 13 cal/cm2, which far exceeded the accepted rate of 8 cal/cm2. (that’s techno-weeny stuff) . Now I have to tell you, Hugh is the chief textile tester for the U.S and gets to blow up fabric in a lab just to test it for its FR properties. The fabrics have to be blown up (exposed to an arc flash, but he does love to say, he blows things up!) 20 times to ensure the ratings are accurate. Isn’t that the perfect job for guys who love to play with fire?

As far as the fabric was concerned, he wanted Nomex. I hadn’t worked with Nomex before ( remember, I didn’t know what an arc flash was, either) and all I could think of was a nasty suit of armour-like cloth these women were going to have to wear. The challenge of this bra was to balance comfort with safety, and looks with practicality. My concern is always with fit and the comfort of the real women inside my bras. The knitting mill was very good about making fabrics to our specs; as a result, the bra is actually very comfortable to wear, more like a comfy fitted princess-style sports bra. Definitely not going to be featured on the runway any time soon, but if it saves breasts from a fiery blast, I can live with that. I did it in 63 sizes (yep, count ’em!) so that any woman at risk to arc flash, can be protected.

No sooner did we get the first ones out on the website, when we had all kinds of women come out of the woodwork asking if this bra would specifically protect them in their profession. I include some of them here: glass blowers, steel workers, linesmen(women?), utility workers, nuclear plant workers, forest fire-fighters, auto factory workers, electric meter readers, welders, metal workers, air force pilots, army, navy, marines, goldsmiths, miners, and restaurant cooks (that last one struck me funny too, but think about how many fires happen in a restaurant kitchen).

The link for Hugh’s website in Canada is here. The US distributor is here. Other than via her website or blog, Beverly Johnson can be reached at 905-318-1799.

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5 comments

  1. La BellaDonna says:

    You just had too much taste to title the post “Hot Stuff” or “Bras for Hotties”, didn’t you?

    Not I!

    Seriously, I also think Beverly is wonderful. It makes me angry that it’s taken until the 21st century to develop that kind of protective gear specifically for women. Women aren’t just deformed men; our bodies have specific needs, in terms of health and in terms of clothing and in terms of equipment. Any woman who’s ever worn a combination seatbelt knows it was designed by men. Everything from shoes to workgloves need to be designed specifically for women; a man’s “small” or a universal “XSMALL” is just not the right shape for a woman, especially if safety is a concern.

  2. joni says:

    I’m quite familiar with the FP bras by Beverly – its about time that more thought went into the safety of all workers and that does include women of all sizes. At my former job (Park Superintendant) at a large park that included a marina, I was considered not valuable enough… “you’re too small for us to provide a survival suit since no one else could ever use it” I was very much at risk in the winter months working on the docks – and I also suffered these same insults over work boots, harnesses, gloves and anything else a man might need for his well being! I finally quit due to sexual harassment. Thinking about that kind of disregard still makes me feel sour.

  3. anna says:

    I wish I would have thought of that. I’ve actually done welding before and that never even occured to me. Thanks for the link — I passed it along to some military women I know.

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