OHS Canada Magazine

Cold Comfort

November 17, 2017
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By Jeff Cottrill

When autumn winds down and temperatures begin to fall, people who work outdoors need extra protection from the cold weather, on top of whatever personal protective equipment (PPE) they are already wearing. Manufacturers are aware of this, and they know that clothing designed to warm up these workers should not prevent them from moving easily or interfere with other required PPE. From winter wear madeo of thinner material to insulating lin ers for hardhats, cold-weather protection is abundant in the market.

Cold-weather protection applies to anybody who works outdoors in the winter months, especially in the oil and gas, construction and utility industries. And winter protection does not simply mean keeping a worker warm; other hazards come into play when the air gets colder, including the possibility of slipping in ice and extra sun brightness. There are many ways to prepare for the chilliest time of year.

One company that offers a full range of winter garments for outdoor workers is Mark’s Commercial, based in Calgary, which has everything from outwear, like jackets, parkas and bib overalls, to headwear, gloves, socks and boots. Gerard Fernandes, a workwear buyer with Mark’s, says the garments are typically insulated to provide warmth, but they also provide the option to layer up or down, depending on the conditions. One example is the “7-in-1” winter coat, a high-visibility garment that can be worn in seven different ways just by changing the configuration of the shell, liner and detachable peaked hood: it can be a parka, a vest or somewhere in between.

“For Canadians, work is always about layering,” Fernandes says. “If they are working, they build up their heat inside their body, and they just need to cool down, but then there are other times when they are in very, very cold or windy conditions or wet conditions.”

He adds that the best insulation for workers is air, so Mark’s takes that into consideration when designing their garments. “Whether we do that through fabrics, or whether we do that through the actual system of putting the clothes together, or the liners together, we want to trap that air inside.”

In addition to making its winter workwear adaptable and easy to move around in, the company makes sure that it is compatible with whatever PPE that a worker may require. For example, a worker can hook a D-ring onto the back of a vest so as to fasten the vest to a harness, and the jackets have multiple pockets and zippers in which one can store radios or cell phones to stay in contact with other workers in case of emergency.

Another common feature of Mark’s coats and jackets is what Fernandes refers to as a “storm channel”, which is a front pocket or flap of fabric that creates a wind barrier to keep out cool air. It also provides extra protection during precipitation. “If they get wet, the storm channel will then take the water down the front of that zipper to the bottom, as opposed to penetrating through,” he says.

Winter workwear must not detract from the functions of other PPE required in a job. Workrite Uniform Co., which manufactures flame-resistant (FR) clothing in Oxnard, California, solves that problem for outdoor workers in the oil and gas and utility sectors with insulated FR parkas, jackets, coveralls, hoods and bibs that protect from both fire and chill.

“They are outside all day long,” Mark Saner, the company’s FR technical manager, says of personnel in these industries. “So they need to have that protection, from the FR as well as the insulation from the weather.”

Saner adds that some workers have made the mistake of putting on a regular parka or jacket over standard FR gear and believing that they are fully protected. “That is not a good practice,” he warns. “If the outer layer catches on fire, you are still going to get that heat transfer through your FR materials if your jacket is burning. So it is important to make sure that that outer layer is always FR, that insulated layer, regardless of what you are wearing underneath.”

Most of Workrite’s cold-weather products are designed for the southern United States, where outdoor temperatures rarely reach the frigid lows of the great white north, necessitating a lower level of insulation to which Saner refers as an “in-between” layer. But the company has one product that has caught on well in Canada: an orange, high-visibility, insulated coverall with reflective tape that is very suitable for outdoor work at night.

Mark’s also specializes in winter workwear with hi-viz capability. Winter is the season when dusk sets in earlier and the sun rises later, so visibility is a safety feature that is certainly in demand. But Fernandes cautions employers that workers do not necessarily need the bright orange colours common in hi-viz apparel. “Lime may be a better way for that person to be in daylight conditions.”

Fernandes says that many Mark’s winter items, especially cotton ones, can be cleaned in a regular washing machine, particularly after use by workers in oil and gas or other sectors where clothes and workers often get dirty. But it is important to note any instructions or tags to be aware of any special requirements.

“For waterproof garments, as well as waterproof breathable garments, we ask that they wash them with a damp cloth on there, and they should never be put within a dryer,” he advises Clothing should be hang-dried after they have been washed, and one must avoid getting anything with chlorine on it, as it damages the coating.

With insulated FR clothes, Saner recommends spot cleaning with regular detergents, rather than using a washing machine on a regular basis. He adds that cleaning should not affect the FR abilities, which are guaranteed for Workrite garments’ entire life — “meaning that they are going to wear out before the FR’s going to lose its properties.”

It is also a good idea to inspect garments regularly for rips, holes and loose seams, although liners and insulation under the outer surface should prevent these defects from letting the chills inside if they are working properly.

The winter weather affects not only the air, but also the ground and any moisture on it. Some outdoor workers face a significant risk of slips, trips and falls on icy ground. So manufacturers like Yaktrax in Vancouver and ICEtrekkers in Durham, North Carolina provide traction aids that one can attach to boots to help them grip the surface more effectively.

ICEtrekkers has recently created “diamond grips”, which have proved very popular with outdoor industrial workers, for example. These traction devices fit over boots and have aircraft-grade steel cables with tiny steel islets covered by a zinc coating, according to Cate Rodrigue, the marketing manager with Interex Industries, a Vancouver company that distributes Yaktrax and ICEtrekkers products.

“They have all got little pointy bits on them, and they all rotate. So that is what gives you more of a lateral stability,” explains Rodrigue about the diamond grips, which can also be used on loose gravel or bare concrete, mud and snow. “They are great for people who are on a worksite where probably some snow has been cleared from some areas. Perhaps it is wetter and icier in others, it is not a consistent base, and these are going to work really well.”

Another new traction product that Interex is distributing is the Summit from Yaktrax, which uses a crampon technology similar to one that has been used on bike shoes, ski boots and snowboard boots. This is suitable for employees who go out into the field rather than stay on a specific worksite, Rodrigue explains. “It allows a much snugger fit over a boot, so it is less likely to come off it at any point.”

To keep boots, gloves and helmets dry between uses in the cold season, Rodrigue recommends Dry Guy, a brand of forced-air dryer that pushes warm air onto the garments, drying them more quickly than a standard convection dryer would. “If you are not drying them out properly, they can get mould growing inside them, which obviously creates an unhealthy environment for your skin,” she explains. In addition, dry garments are 25 times warmer than moist ones — a definite plus in winter — according to the Dry Guy website.

Cold air, wind chill and slippery surfaces are not the only dangers of working outdoors in the winter. Many workers and employers may not realize that sun exposure is just as potentially hazardous in the winter months as in the summer — arguably more so, because people often become complacent and do not think to protect themselves from the sun in winter.

“As a skier, I have gotten bad burns on the face on cold days, but very, very sunny days,” says Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists in Newmarket, Ontario. “You should continue to wear and use sunscreens on the parts of the body that are going to be exposed, traditionally the face.”

Dente notes that bright, sunny days in areas with a lot of snow can compound the sun’s effect; in addition to the dangers of ultraviolet rays, bright snow can reflect the sun in a way that makes it difficult to see. So not only is it wise to include sunscreen with PPE, but workers should also have sunglasses of some kind.

Another undervalued concern that Dente points out is dehydration. “People neglect to understand that dehydration is as concerning in cold weather as it is in hot,” he says. “Folks should be using rehydration products as well.”

Dentec offers a mineral-nutrient product called Sqwincher to restore important mineral salts and fluids that dehydration can tap out, especially when combined with heat stress and physical exertion. “You should drink it in combination with water,” says Dente, “to help keep the body warm in cold weather.”

Every employer needs to assess all relevant risks associated with winter before deciding on what kind of clothing and accessories to purchase for employees. “It really depends on the conditions that the product will be used in,” Rodrigue says. “If they are transitioning from different surfaces, if they are on bare concrete and then they might be walking over to mud, or they might be walking over to an ice-covered area, then that would be a specific need,” she notes, adding that ICEtrekkers’ diamond grips would be ideal for that situation. But for postal workers and others who often traverse over icy sidewalks, the Summit from Yaktrax might be more suitable, “just because that is designed for those very packed snow and icy conditions.”

For conditions with electric hazards, Saner advises employers to be sure of the specific risks before settling on FR winter wear. “Is it a flammable gas, flash-type fire application, or is it an electric-arc flash?” he asks. “Identify what the thermal-energy potential is, and then get the jacket or parka or whatever it is that is rated to that level.”

So while everybody knows that Canadians have to bundle up when the winter sets in, it is up to employers and their workers to ensure that people bundle up wisely — with all risks taken into account.

Jeff Cottrill is editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.

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