Comfort Zones

Temperature-controlled PPE is important for worker health and safety but also for productivity

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For workers in many industries, extreme heat in the workplace can have severe effects on their health and safety. Heat stress is a serious issue, especially during the summer months, and it can occur whether working indoors or outdoors. Heat stress occurs when the body is not able to regulate its internal temperature due to overheating. It can lead to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Those who work outside in the summer months are those most at risk of heat stress. But many people who work indoors can also be at risk. Radiant heat from hot surfaces or materials, such as molten metals, affects welders and metal fabricators and others who work in steel mills, foundries, and oil and gas facilities. In addition to the heat, wearing the required personal protective equipment (PPE) can increase the risk of heat stress and related illnesses.

Under OSHA regulations, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety and health hazards, which includes heat-related hazards.

This Allegro cooling vest holds reusable cooling packs made of ice or frozen phase-change material in the pockets that cool the worker for three to four hours.

For PPE, the 29 CFR 1910.132(a) regulation requires employers to ensure that PPE “including personal protective equipment for eyes, face, head, and extremities; protective clothing; and protective shields and barriers, shall be provided, used, and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary” to prevent injury or impairment.

“The United States falls under the OSHA general-duty clause,” says Leo Reyes, international sales manager, Walter Surface Technologies. “It doesn’t specifically target heat stressors but just on providing a safe workplace. Employers have a legal obligation to protect workers. Anything that can likely cause any serious harm is the responsibility of the employer.

“Canada is a little different,” he adds. “It has a set of regulations, Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (COHSR), subsection in section 10.19 of Part X, that does address thermal stress specifically and the conditions that have to be met. It’s a very thorough process. It focuses on everything from protective clothing to administrative controls to training.”

No matter what regulations employers must follow, having a heat stress prevention program in place provides actions to take. Employers need to understand the heat hazards and then plan the steps that will be taken to protect workers when the hazards are present. Workers and supervisors should also be trained to recognize the symptoms of heat stress for themselves and their co-workers.

Prevention practices

The steps to protect workers include engineering controls, work practices and PPE. Exposure to heat can be reduced by using engineering controls to make the work environment cooler. These include ventilation, air conditioning, cooling fans and using mechanical equipment to reduce manual work.

If the work area can’t be cooled by engineering controls, employers may need to modify work practices when the temperature is too high to work safely.

The Allegro Vortex cooling/heating vest features a device that separates hot air and cold air naturally inside the vortex tube, which receives air from an air compressor. Constant cold or warm air is introduced throughout the vest.

Reyes says for the most part, mid-sized to large companies are aware of the necessary guidelines and the need to make modifications, but smaller companies might not be aware.

“In most cases, larger companies assign safety directors who are responsible for all safety matters and staying updated on regulation changes,” he says. “But for smaller companies, it’s important to educate them as much as possible because one of the big issues in the safety industry is that employers are more reactive than proactive. It might take an accident or a near miss for them to realize they need to implement some changes.”

One important modification is to ensure workers are acclimated to the heat. According to OSHA, most outdoor fatalities, 50 to 70 percent, occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body needs to build a tolerance to the heat gradually over time. Lack of acclimatization represents a major risk factor for fatal outcomes.

“A new employee experiencing working in the heat for the first time is at high risk of heat stress or heat exhaustion,” Reyes says. “I think employers should pay more attention to this. They can’t just rely on experienced workers for feedback. Obviously, a new employee is going to be faced with different circumstances than the more experienced workers.”

Therefore, for newly hired workers or existing workers that need to get used to the heat, employers should schedule shorter shifts and gradually increase them over the first couple of weeks. Other work modifications might include taking mandatory breaks in a cooler environment, scheduling work during the cooler time of day, rotating job functions among workers and providing plenty of access to water.

Personal protection

When it is not possible to reduce the risk of heat stress through engineering controls or work practices, cooling PPE should be used to reduce the risk of heat stress. Cooling PPE includes reflective clothing, clothing made from “wicking” fabric, cooling towels, and neck wraps and beanies.

For extreme temperatures, more serious equipment includes jackets and vests that hold reusable cooling packs made of ice or frozen phase-change material in the pockets. The packs maintain a constant, comfortable temperature for several hours.

“We have several products in the Allegro line to reduce heat for the worker, including a phase-change product,” Reyes says. “It’s kind of a gel material you place in a cooler or fridge for 20 to 30 min. and it stays at about 65 degrees F for up to three hours. We also have ‘feather ice,’ which is a powder type material. It freezes like ice, but it actually stays cold for about three times longer. It’s quite interesting technology and it remains at about 50 degrees F for up to four hours. Both types can be reused hundreds of times.”

Designed to keep workers cool in intense heat, Allegro’s cooling beanie can be worn alone or under a hat or helmet.

Another option is a vest that receives cooled air from a tube connected to an external compressed air source.

“The Vortex cooling vest is an innovative product that features a device that actually performs a physical change within it,” Reyes says. “It separates hot air and cold air naturally inside the vortex tube, which is receiving the air from an air compressor. It dissipates the hot air and then the cold air is introduced into the vest. You’re receiving constant cold air throughout the vest with a difference of about 25 degrees F. Whatever the temperature of the air your compressor is feeding into the line, it’s going to cool about 25 degrees F, and it’s going to continue that air movement throughout the vest so it’s constantly keeping the worker refreshed.”

The Vortex vest can be used indoors and outdoors as long as there is access to an air compressor.

“The vortex device is worn on the hip and weighs almost nothing so the worker doesn’t even notice it but they do feel the cooling effect through the vest,” he says. “The only limitation is mobility because of the air compressor connection. But, if you were to compare the cooling effect to other accessories, it’s probably the best performer.”

The Vortex vest can also be used in cold environments by providing warm air and dissipating the cold air.

Summer time

Providing workers with comfortable and safe heat-reducing solutions helps to reduce heat-related illnesses and ensure a safe and healthy working environment. Temperature also influences worker productivity, so it’s important to keep them comfortable throughout the day.

“Overall, I think it’s a constant effort from employers,” Reyes concludes. “That’s why there are amendments to the regulations because it’s cause and effect. If there’s any type of particular accident that’s reoccurring then, obviously, those regulations need to be amended to eliminate those issues and to prevent them.”

Allegro Industries

Walter Surface Technologies

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