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Developing a bespoke protective garment for the munitions industry

22 May 2015

Every day, employees at BAE Systems Munitions facility in South Wales are handling explosive substances that could potentially present a risk of combustion if not handled correctly. This makes safety management a top priority. Employees working at the facility require the highest level of protection. To meet this risk, BAE Systems enlisted the expertise of DuPont to develop a complete protection solution.

Stock image
Stock image

BAE Systems is one of the world’s largest defence contractors, employing over 88,000 people in over 50 countries. It is also the main supplier to the UK Ministry of Defence, which procures over 80% of its conventional munitions from the company. The group’s munitions operations employ around  1,200 in the UK. 

Harsh Environment

Handling and working with potentially explosive substances on a daily basis is central to the role of a BAE Munitions employee.  An explosive substance is defined by The Control of Explosives Regulations Act 1991 as something “which is capable of chemical reaction in itself of producing gas at such a temperature and pressure and at such a speed as could cause damage to surroundings; or which is designed to produce an effect by heat, light, sound, gas or smoke, or a combination of these as a result of a non-detonative, self-sustaining, exothermic chemical reaction.”

The manufacture and storage of munitions and their components requires consideration of a number of potential risks. These are related to the production, transport and movement of explosives and other hazardous substances around the site, the disposal and decommissioning of explosives and explosive contaminated equipment, in addition to storage, maintenance, cleaning, testing and quality control activities. The potential risk posed by some materials is so significant that combustion can be caused simply as a result of contact with the human body and the static charges that are released.

To maintain its excellent record of accredited safe practice, BAE Systems regularly reviews its risk assessment detailing the potential hazards faced by Munitions employees and the steps required to decrease or eliminate potential risk. This focus on safety demands compliance with strict internal safety standards, as well as with UK legislation, and ensures that employees are safeguarded against the potential consequences of underprotection.

Any potential risk present in the munitions environment requires a bespoke approach to garment design and construction in order to ensure the highest level of protection. BAE Systems approached DuPont to work in collaboration with front line Munitions employees in developing a solution to provide complete protection in the event of an explosive incident.

The collective expertise and experience of BAE Systems employees, DuPont experts and DuPont  Nomex Partner Progam members Alsico and Hainsworth offered significant benefits throughout the garment design process, through to manufacture and testing. This partner-led approach resulted in a solution that offers both wearer comfort and the highest level of protection against fire.

Designing to protect

The expert review for the new garment looked firstly at level of protection, comfort and ease of use. Industry-wide incidents where garments had failed to protect the wearer were also considered and lessons taken on board in the design of the new coverall, and each potential fabric solution was put through its paces in rigorous, real-life conditions on BAE Systems in-house mannequin. This provided the data to select the optimum fibre blends for further thermal burn injury evaluation on DuPont’s Thermo-Man, an instrumented mannequin system that is one of the most advanced of its type in the world.

The process was concluded with industry standard testing and evaluation at the high temperatures expected in the event of a fire or explosion.

The final design is made from Hainsworth’s TITAN technology, with an optimum blend of DuPont Nomex and Kevlar fibres. TITAN was selected for its mechanical strength, super light weight and flame-resistant properties.

The coverall offers wearer comfort and protection against fire
The coverall offers wearer comfort and protection against fire

Bespoke Solution

An off-the-shelf design was not suitable to protect against the potential risks present within this environment. For BAE Systems, it was important that the garment took into account the unique demands and risks associated with its munitions manufacturing processes, whilst remaining flexible and easy to work in.

The final coverall design is tailored to offer head to toe and surface to skin level protection. It has been constructed to be as simple as possible to ensure minimal exposed surface area for explosive substances to settle.

The most prominent feature is a high ‘mandarin-style’ collar that provides additional protection around the neck area, preventing harmful substances from entering the garment though this opening. There are no outside pockets and zips have also been removed to prevent explosive powders from becoming embedded in their metal teeth. The metal on metal contact that occurs when a zip is opened or closed can create sparks, causing settled powder to combust.

Instead, the coverall has been designed with a wrap-over front to prevent particle intrusion and to provide double protection for the wearer at a critical garment opening.  Original plastic buttons have also been replaced as these could fall off and react with the substances used in the munitions manufacturing process. Instead, all buttons are made from rubber.

Another design feature of the coveralls is the inclusion of knitted Nomex cuffs on the end of each sleeve. As many of the products that BAE Systems works with are highly gaseous, cuffs are included to ensure that gases cannot travel up the sleeves and reach the body, and movement is not restricted by this design element.

DuPont and the design team were acutely aware of the need for workers to have full motor control, particularly when working with minute measurements in a controlled environment. Pleats were added around the garment’s shoulders to enable free movement and bending without compromising the level of protection offered. When teamed with protective undergarments, gloves, boots, visor and balaclava, this bespoke solution provides the complete protection package for Munitions employees at BAE Systems.

Selena Burn, SHE Advisor at BAE Systems Glascoed, said: “We are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect our employees. In an industry where you can’t afford to get it wrong, we have achieved an industry- leading solution for our employees that offers complete protection. The design, development and manufacture of these garments marked the first time that the explosive manufacturing industry had looked at a bespoke protection solution rather than off-the-shelf offerings. Previous solutions often required a compromise to be made between high levels of heat and flame protection and the comfort and movement of the wearer. We have now set a benchmark for the munitions industry as a whole and in particular for those working in potentially high risk explosive environments.”

Since its introduction, the garment has undergone continuous review to ensure that it gives the highest level of protection against all materials and technologies being used at the facility.

Partners Alsico and Sofileta are currently working with BAE Systems to upgrade its undergarment provision. Also containing DuPont Nomex, the undergarments will have heat and flame resistant properties to ensure that workers continue to receive surface to skin level protection from the hazards they face in this high risk environment.


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