Working as a commercial fisherman is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. There are numerous ways in which they can end up in the water, with their shipmates (if they even have any) not noticing until it’s too late. That, or their boat can simply sink. In any case, fishermen need all the help they can get when it comes to safety, so a 14-group research consortium is developing “intelligent clothing” for them to wear at sea.

The three-year, 4 million Euro (approx. US$5,225,000) Safe@Sea project is being coordinated by Norway’s SINTEF research group, with Norwegian textile manufacturer Helly Hansen Pro as project manager. Other groups taking part in the project come from Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Italy and the UK.

European fishermen have already expressed their needs to Safe@Sea, and the group is now working on addressing them. One of the most noteworthy features of the workwear is a proposed built-in wireless “dead man’s handle.” This will detect when its wearer has fallen overboard, and automatically kill the boat’s engine and activate a locator beacon – an essential feature for fishermen who work alone. Such devices are already available, although they have to be manually attached to clothing, so they could be forgotten or just not used.

Once in the water, the clothing could double as a flotation device. This could either be through solid slabs of buoyant materials, or via “lungs” that automatically inflate when immersed.

Of course, it will all count for nothing if nobody wants to wear the stuff. To that end, the researchers are also working on making it impervious to staining from fish blood and guts, while at the same time trying to keep it soft and breathable. They are also looking into the possibility of self-repairing material that glues up small rips in itself, to make sure it remains watertight.

At this point it’s hard to say how much of the proposed technology will make it into the final product, but the research itself is still valuable. “If we don’t manage to develop such textiles in the course of this three-year project, we can at least hope to create a basis for other materials that will be of value in the future,” said SINTEF’s project coordinator Hilde Færevik.