Many jobs in the western world now demand a high degree of concentration. This is particularly the case where special clothing or even personal protection equipment has to be worn at work. While the main focus is often on physical protection for people or products, there has, until now, been no investigation into the influence of clothing on employees’ mental performance and consequently the outcome of their work. Now researchers at the Hohenstein Institute in Bönnigheim have studied this important premise as part of a commissioned research project.

In cooperation with a pilot client, DASTEX Reinraumzubehör in Muggensturm, they tested the ability of volunteers to concentrate for long periods in clean room conditions. Firstly, the volunteers had to perform a challenging task requiring high levels of concentration in a specially developed ‘stressbox’. They were wearing different qualities of clean room clothing, as worn nowadays in the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries. Following the stress phase, the mental performance of the volunteers was tested using a new software test system devised by the Hohenstein Institute, which includes the requirements of international standards for workplace psychology. This tested both undivided attention and the ability of the volunteers to multitask.

The results of the Hohenstein survey confirm that, in the same environmental conditions, the volunteers wearing high-quality reusable clothing generally performed better than those wearing less breathable disposable clothing. This could be seen in both the speed of their reactions and their error rate. “These results are quite unambiguous, and also fascinating,” says Prof. Dirk Höfer, head of the Institute for Hygiene and Biotechnology at the Hohenstein Institute. “We have been working for a long time, not only on product optimisation, but also on occupational health issues and the effect of textiles on people, in this case of complete clothing systems on work performance.”

As well as typical types of work in clean room conditions, other examples of jobs requiring enormous amounts of concentration at work include operating for hours using fine mechanical skills, accurately mixing chemotherapy drugs in sterile conditions and air traffic control. With this type of work the focus is not only on a quick reaction speed but also, and mainly, on keeping the error rate as low as possible. Now researchers can measure this error rate in relation to the working situation and the clothes worn. In future, the new test system will help people to select or adapt workplace-specific clothing to suit the required mental performance and work outcomes, meaning that manufacturers of clothing for the healthcare, armed forces or civilian protection forces (police, fire brigades) could also benefit from the new procedure.