University of Wisconsin-Stout

Oct. 25, 2011

Underground mining is considered one of the world’s top 10 most dangerous jobs. Can it be safer?

That’s the question five apparel design and development students at University of Wisconsin-Stout asked themselves. Their answer, after a semester of research, hours of stitching and four prototypes, has been greeted with two thumbs up.

This week the group is being honored in Baltimore with first prize in the international 2011 Safety Products Student Design Challenge. Their creation, the Underground Mine Suit, someday could help prevent injuries and even save miners’ lives.

When team members finished the class last spring and entered the contest “we were very proud of what we did,” said Toni Sabelman, of Peshtigo.

Yet, “I don’t think any of us expected this,” said Jamie Bystrom, of Blaine, Minn.

They and other team members Sarah Furnae, of Menomonie; Alicia Mitchell, of Barron; and Jennifer Whelan, of Poplar, received an all-expenses paid trip to the Industrial Fabrics Association International Expo in Maryland along with $1,500 to share. They will do three presentations on their garment at the conference.

To see some of the team members discuss their award-winning design, go to http://www.youtube.com/user/uwstoutvideos.

This is the second time in three years a UW-Stout team from Professor Gindy Neidermyer’s class has taken first place in the contest.

Students’ use of the latest fabric technology in their suit — a jacket and pants — likely sealed their win, and their decision to address safety issues in mining got the judges’ attention, Neidermyer said.

“The suit is a timely design given the recent mining incidents around the globe,” said Neidermyer, director of the apparel design and development program.

The 2010 summer-fall Chilean mine accident, in which 33 trapped men were rescued, was on the team’s mind when in January it began considering what to develop in the Functional Clothing Design course.

While doing research, the five team members found that most underground miners wear jeans and a T-shirt to work. Often, miners’ jeans rip. They wear steel toe boots and hard hats but typically no other protective clothing.

Key features of the Underground Mine Suit include:

• Both reflective and glow-in-the-dark materials, Reflexite and Energlo, respectively, to keep miners more visible in their dark workplaces

• Foam pads around the knees, shoulders and elbows made of D30, a special material that hardens on impact

• Drawstrings at the elbows and knees that can become tourniquets to stop bleeding in case of a limb amputation

• Lightweight, moisture-wicking material and air vents to keep miners flexible, dry and comfortable

“There’s a lot of technology in fabrics we weren’t aware of until this project. It broadened our horizons about what’s available,” Bystrom said.

“We had binders full of research,” Whelan said.

The students estimate they spent $400 developing the prototypes during the semester-long project, which they said helped them develop important teamwork skills and opened their eyes to the importance of functional clothing.

“I believe they won because their research resulted in innovative technology and a design that not only addresses this problem but can also be transferred to other safety and technical products in the future,” Neidermyer said.

A student from University of Minnesota was runner-up, and a team of students from Colorado State took third place.

###