The fracking frenzy sweeping the nation has created a surplus of natural gas and a wave of protests. But it’s also created a new look. The protective wear that drillers are required to sport on the rigs has turned into a fashion style of sorts that’s providing a boost for some local clothing makers and sellers. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu has this story about how the drilling rig has become a runway for a new line of clothing.
At National Safety Apparel in Cleveland, sewing machines and cutting boards are buzzing, zig-zagging, and searing reflective strips on vibrant swaths of fabric. This clothing manufacturer has been stitching uniforms for distributors that sell the garments to electrical and steel workers for years.
Now, thanks to the increased volume of oil and gas drilling in eastern Ohio, NSA’s customer base is growing.
Regional Manager Greg Meeker says retailers aren't just looking for the traditional, solid color, one piece jumpsuit anymore.
Meeker: "The biggest demand we've gotten so far are high visibility and also comfort and heat stress. A lot of these guys are working in hostile type environments so they need to be first of all safe wearing a flame resistant garment, but they need to be comfortable."
Flame resistant clothing is all the rage among drillers—not to mention a requirement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But instead of the monochromatic khaki of years past, FR clothing now comes in a range of colors and fabrics that allow workers to stand out on a drilling rig.
Meeker: “You’re going to see a lot of different colors, high visibility striping, silver reflective trims, orange and triple trims…”
And the protective wear is no longer relegated to drillers. Meeker says NSA now sells denim jeans and button-down shirts with a front pocket in hues of royal blue and fire truck red, suitable for CEOs and office staff.
Meeker: "What we've done is we've changed the quality of our garment to give it that more, off the shelf, retail look. And in a sense, most of the companies that are coming to us now are setting up retail stores."
And those new retail stores are not all brick and mortar storefronts.
Fifty miles south of Cleveland in Canton, Tyler Wilkof is helping load up the mobile retail truck for Ron's Workingman's Store.
Tyler Wilkof: "The truck came back last night. We were closed. This is probably the first time we opened it up this morning."
Ron's Workingman's has sold uniforms for industrial jobs since 1979. Wilkof says he and his dad-who owns the company-launched the mobile store a year ago to travel to customers on different job sites.
Wilkof: "Some of what we call core product or staples that are always on our truck would be FR high visibility safety vests, the lime green vests with the 3m scotch light. We also carry the orange."
Inside the original store building, dad Ron Wilkof says business really took off in 2010 when Ohio's biggest driller moved to town.
Ron Wilkof: "As soon as Chesapeake moved in across the street from us, they saw our sign with FR clothing, they came over right away, and they were just amazed that we had it here in Canton. And they helped us quite a bit."
Ron says business from Chesapeake, and the increased foot traffic from other drillers enabled them to launch a new website to expand sales online.
Ron Wilkof: "We also put on an outside salesman, we added a staff person inside here at the clothing store, and we added another person working on our website, so we have employed four new employees.”
As big as the flame resistant clothing is on the gas drilling rigs, the Wilkofs don't see the fashion spreading to consumers on the street just yet. For one thing, the average FR shirt has a $70 price tag-higher than in most clothing stores.
But that doesn't bother them. They say once the drilling boom ends, they expect the guys who build and repair natural gas pipelines will come to them next.