Summer’s here, and the time is right for working in the street — or, at least, in the great outdoors. With the warmer weather of the spring and summer months comes an increase in outdoor work in construction, road improvement, oil and gas and other sectors. But it is not always about fun in the sun: rising temperatures puts workers at considerable risk of heat stress.
When the air is near or higher than a person’s core body temperature, the body cannot cool itself through sweating, and heat stress can occur. This may result in illnesses like heat cramps, heat rashes, heat exhaustion or a heat stroke. While there are many practical ways to reduce the risk — like working in the shade, frequent breaks in cooler areas, drinking liquids and wearing loose-fitting clothes, for example — sometimes, a worker does not have a choice. So manufacturers such as Radians, based in Memphis, make useful products like cooling towels and bandannas to turn the heat down.
“Right now, it seems that we’re selling out more for the industrial market,” says Joyce Wooley, the high-visibility/outerwear development manager with Radians, referring to the company’s cooling products. While these products are also popular with people into outdoor sports and fitness, Wooley notes that Radians is geared more towards employers looking to protect workers from the heat, particularly on construction sites. “You know where you’re working out in the sunshine all day long, you’re more prone to the heat stress.”
Toweling in an inferno
As the late Douglas Adams might have put it, it is always best to know where your towel is. Cooling towels are one way to relieve a hot worker out in the sun, and Radians is proud of its new RCS20 Arctic Radwear Cooling Wrap XT, a towel made out of microfibre fabric and designed with advanced ARCTIC technology designed to accelerate the evaporative cooling process.
“It is a hydrophobic and a hydrophilic yarn, and that means it’s going to absorb water, and it’s also going to repel water,” explains Wooley about the RCS20. “All you need to do is wet it in cold water and put it back around your neck, but just your sweat on the actual microfibre will tend to keep the towel damp.” The towel does not require refrigeration or ice to retain its cooling properties, she adds. “And we’ve got a little topical treatment on it also that, when it’s wet, it will stay cool for probably a couple or three hours, depending, obviously, on the temperatures that you’re actually in.”
Radians also manufactures regular cooling towels with polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, a type of water-soluble synthetic polymer. “Those are probably the most common that you will see out in the marketplace,” says Wooley, although microfibre towels like the RCS20 are also becoming more common these days.
The PVA towel is shipped damp in a canister, and it needs to be damp when the worker stores it back in the canister after use. “It will get hard once it gets dry, so even when you finish with it, you wash it and you put it back into your container and bring it out again,” explains Wooley.
“And those actually have an antimicrobial on them, so that you don’t have to worry about any kind of mold or mildew.”
Aside from towels, Radians also offers cooling head gear, such as a do-rag or skull cap that a worker wraps around his or her head and ties at the back, as one would with a bandanna. The do-rag has PVA on the top that one moistens before use, “and it’ll stay cool even up on the top of your head for a considerable amount of time,” says Wooley. “We’ve actually got five styles, in a variety of different colours.”
Other products on the market that an employer might consider for outdoor work in hot weather include cooling vests, sunshields that attach to hardhats, portable shade tents, electrolyte drinks and even specially designed socks. High-visibility and flame-resistant options are available from some manufacturers, and many of the products are water-activated.
For many of the towel and headgear products, users should keep them damp when storing them. “You’re definitely going to want to kind of just rinse it out when you’re through with it, obviously clean it as much as possible,” Wooley explains. “You’re going to want to take it with some moisture in it, fold it up and put it back into the cylinder that it was actually shipped in. And it needs to be stored damp; otherwise, it will harden.”
She compares them to the rags that people often use for washing and drying their cars: “When you dry your car off and you’re hanging the towel up to dry, it will harden, but as soon as you wet it again, it would be just as good as new.”
Radians’ cooling products can last up to five hours, depending on the humidity levels of the work environment, and its PVA fabric can hold up to eight times its weight in water even while remaining dry to the touch, according to information from the manufacturer.
While construction and industrial work are sectors that commonly work outdoors in the heat, heat stress can also be a risk in the military, welding, metal forging, laundromats, bakeries, firefighting, boiler rooms and factories. One might also consider using hot-weather protection in leisurely activities like sports, fitness, fishing or even lying on the beach in the sun. Physical weight, dehydration, acclimatization, metabolism, blood pressure, age and use of medication or alcohol may also play a role in a worker’s risk of heat stress and need for cooling products.
“They all fall within a very close parameter in pricing, and they’re certainly not pricey,” says Wooley about Radians’ cooling gear. “It depends on the market that we’re selling into.”
With the proper protective equipment, any worker should be able to beat the heat and stay comfortable all summer long.