The Big Chill
Winter is back, and outdoor workers need to bundle up to guard themselves from seasonal chill. But full protection is not as simple as donning parkas, toques, gloves, scarves and boots. Cold-weather work wear needs to allow users to do their tasks easily, without diminishing movement and manual dexterity. In some cases, it also has to be compatible with other kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Some PPE companies resolve the compatibility issue by manufacturing safety garments with the additional function of cold protection. Workrite Uniform Co., a manufacturer of fire-resistant (FR) gear based in Oxnard, California, has a line of insulated FR outerwear designed to protect workers from both winter weather and burns from flash fires or arc flashes.
“We design them and manufacture them with insulation materials to provide the cold-weather protection as well, which is also flame-resistant material,” explains Mark Saner, Workrite’s FR technical manager. Available products include coveralls, bib overalls, parkas and jackets.
MSA, a safety-gear company in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, takes a similar approach by manufacturing three types of liners that can be worn with hard hats: flame-resistant ones made out of inherently FR material; flame-retardant liners, which contain an FR coating on the outside; and standard-value liners that have no FR properties, but can still protect workers from the cold.
“You put them on your head, just like a beanie. And then you would just put your hard hat overtop of it,” describes Ashley Gaworski, MSA’s product-line manager for industrial head-protection accessories, hearing and communications. Some of the liners have attachments that cover workers’ necks as well, she adds.
When one thinks of winter clothing, the mental picture is usually one of bulky outerwear that limits movement. But manufacturers of work clothing have begun taking into account the fact that many workers need to move around freely.
“There are new materials that have come out in the last many years where they are thinner materials, and they still provide protection from the cold and from the wind, and from precipitation,” says Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists, a PPE distributor based in Newmarket, Ontario. “So we are seeing clothing being introduced or available on the marketplace that has a thinner protective barrier.”
Workrite offers a version of winter clothing with “Thinsulate” insulation, which allows a greater range of motion. According to the company, Thinsulate garments provide 44 per cent more warmth than standard insulated FR clothing.
“The garments are designed to try and reduce mobility issues as best they can, and sometimes, it is a tradeoff,” Saner says. “But having the version with the Thinsulate gives some of that additional mobility capability, just because it is not as bulky as your standard insulating materials.”
Before investing in cold-weather protection, employers must examine the work environment, such as the temperatures and hazards to which workers are exposed, Gaworski says. If the profession is not particularly dangerous on an intrinsic level, all the employer may need is standard winter liners, such as those offered by MSA.
But cold air may not be the only threat on the work site in winter; there are other dangers like slippery surfaces, precipitation and exposures to fires or flashes, which require winter wear with FR capabilities covering the entire body.
Double your protection
Juggling winter clothing with essential safety gear like fall-protection systems can be a challenge. But Saner says most safety harnesses are adjustable for different body sizes. “If you had one that was built to size, then that could be a problem,” he says. “But generally speaking, they are all adjustable.”
Similarly, Workrite’s insulated hoods are designed to be oversized to fit over workers’ hard hats. In the case of FR clothing, Saner stresses that it is vital to wear an FR layer on the outside. “If you are going to unzip or roll your sleeve down or whatever, then the under layer needs to be FR as well,” he says. “You can take your jacket off. As long as you have got an FR shirt on underneath an FR coverall, you are fine.”
Workrite’s insulated bibs and coveralls also have leg zippers that enable users to put them on while wearing protective boots or shoes: one can simply zip the leg back down once the garment is on, without risking danger by removing the foot protection.
“There are some features built into them to accommodate for whatever else you are wearing, so you don’t have to change your boots or change your hard hat,” Saner explains.
Many of Dentec’s winter products are designed to be inserted into traditional types of PPE. For example, the company distributes hand and foot warmers that can be inserted into safety gloves, shoes or work boots. Dentec also sells winter liners for hard hats.
“Our series of winter liners has pockets in them,” Dente says. “You can insert the warmer into it, so you can have the warmth around your ear when you put the winter liner on.” Dentec also supplies winter footwear that protects against slipping on ice. Traction aids on boots have ice cleats made of carbon tungsten steel, with tiny spikes that allow workers to walk easily on slippery surfaces.
He adds that his company’s traction aids also take into consideration transitioning when working outdoors. “You are walking on ice for a little bit, then you are on asphalt, then you might walk on pavement and concrete and so forth. So our spikes give you the same type of traction on all those surfaces.”
As with all kinds of PPE, wear and tear sets in over time. Since the severity of precipitation and winter wind changes year by year, or even day by day, this may affect how long it lasts and remains protective. “It is going to wear like a pair of pants,” Dente says. “So you have got to take care and make sure that you clean it properly and change it when it is necessary to do so.”
To prolong the lives of MSA winter liners, Gaworski advises workers to inspect them regularly for rips, tears, loose seams and holes. But since one wears the liners underneath standard head protection, rough weather should not have any notable effect on them, she adds.
Whatever kind of cold-weather protection a worker needs, judgement must be exercised, as winter gear is just as important as any other type of PPE.
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.