Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Protective Clothing: Protection versus Comfort: In the Summer Months, Thousands of Workers Who Must Wear Protective Clothing Struggle to Stay Cool. Fabric and Garment Manufacturers Are Answering Their Call for More Comfortable Products and Designs

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Protective Clothing: Protection versus Comfort: In the Summer Months, Thousands of Workers Who Must Wear Protective Clothing Struggle to Stay Cool. Fabric and Garment Manufacturers Are Answering Their Call for More Comfortable Products and Designs

Article excerpt

Louisiana in the summertime is a hot, humid place. Sit still and you sweat. Move and you sweat. Work outside for an hour or two and you understand the phrase, "Hotter than H-E-double hockey stick."

Just ask the employees of Ford, Bacon & Davis LLC of Baton Rouge, who are suited up in hard hats, chemical goggles, fire-retardant clothing, gloves and steel-toed shoes or boots whenever they head out to the chemical processing facilities of the region's oil producers. (Note: Ford, Bacon & Davis LLC was named one of America's Safest Companies in 2004 by OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS.)

"We are serious about heat stress education," says Keith Sliman, safety director for the company's 450 employees in three southern states. "Starting in June, I send out e-mails, put up posters and talk to employees about heat stress and working outside in heat and humidity."

Employees are given copies of heat index charts that map humidity and temperature. Sliman checks weather reports at the beginning of each week starting in June and notes the predicted heat indexes. If they are high, he notifies employees to be careful while working outside or tells them not to work outside at all. "They're told to plan their day with the heat index in mind. If it's too hot, then they need to plan to work inside," he says.

Part of his educational presentations about heat stress and working during the summer months includes precautions against rolling up sleeves and unzipping coveralls until the employees are in "safe" locations. When they are out in the pipe racks of a chemical processing facility, they'd better be covered up.

"We give them permission to stop work if they get too hot. I tell them, 'Go to a safe place. Unzip the coveralls and let the sweat evaporate. Cool down. Then go back to work,'" says Sliman.

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BALANCING ACT

All too often, in the summer months, you see workers who have compromised the integrity of their protective clothing by cutting off the sleeves or unzipping the garment, says Ralph Solarski, associate marketing director, Kimberly-Clark Safety Business. "That means they're either hot, or the garment doesn't fit properly."

Kimberly-Clark manufactures coveralls out of Kleenguard fabric, which allows air permeability while still offering particle protection. The garments are constructed to have more room to allow better airflow. Kim Dennis, a research scientist at Kimberly-Clark, points out that "if a coverall has been breached, because the employee cut slits in it or the seat blew out, then it is not offering any level of protection. They might as well not be wearing it."

Employers face a difficult task, she adds. "They have to assess what is the best coverall for their workers by balancing many factors, such as risk of exposure and comfort." Dennis offers this anecdote as a way of illustrating her point: A couple of years ago, she conducted an educational session about protective clothing at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo. She remembers an industrial hygienist coming up to her after the session and telling her, "We experience relatively small exposures with health risks that might or might not be long-term, but I know one thing for sure: Heat stroke and heat stress are immediate and can cause a life-or-death situation that day. Which exposure is more acute?"

"The hygienist had to balance health or comfort, and the long-term and short-term risks," Dennis points out. "What was the greater hazard--the threat of heat stroke that day or an exposure that might cause illness years down the road?"

COMFORT VERSUS PROTECTION

Garment and cloth manufacturers understand the comfort issues facing workers who must wear protective clothing in hot months. They also are aware that comfort levels can vary from worker to worker.

"Comfort is a subjective and very complex perception," says Dawn Werry, global marketing communications manager, Industrial Segment, DuPont Safety and Protection, which manufactures a number of protective fabrics, including Tyvek and Nomex. …

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