After coming off another near record warm summer Mother Nature has transitioned the country to what is shaping up to be a winter filled with extremes. Warmer here, colder there, snow, wind or cold morning rain. Everybody has some of it; some of us seem to experience all of it this time of year. For those who work outside or in unprotected environments winter can be the most challenging time of the year when it comes to selecting the FR clothing to be worn to work.

Due to the range of temperatures that can be experienced –– commonly at or below freezing in the morning and evening with midday temperatures that can be anything from frigid to balmy –– wearing a clothing system that can be easily modified by adding or removing layers is the primary key to dressing for the winter months. The features of the safety clothing you wear can also have an effect on your ability to perform your job, just like having the right tools in your toolbox. Here are some key considerations for effective layering this winter:

Base layer – the foundation of comfort

The base layer, or garment that touches your skin, can be the most important piece of clothing within the layering system. There are three key factors of a high-performance base layer that will keep you safe and comfortable: moisture management, breathability and hand feel.  Just because a garment says it wicks moisture does not mean you should buy it. Some fabrics, like cotton, absorb moisture from the skin but they also retain excessive moisture. Rather than wicking, linemen should look for garments that manage moisture by moving it away from the skin and drying quickly.

Fabrics that use hydrophobic (water hating) fibers in conjunction with a smaller percentage of hydrophilic (water loving) fibers can facilitate moisture transport and quick drying without the garment ever getting fully saturated with sweat. Even on cold days, we sweat. When there is physical work involved the amount we sweat goes way up. The average person sweats a quart of fluid every day, much of that sweat occurs at our core on our torso, an area covered by our base layer garment and it is critical to keep that moisture moving away from our skin in winter to avoid getting very cold when our activity level drops, such as after the physical portion of a work task has been completed.

There is also evidence that shows that wet (sweat-soaked) garments perform poorly when exposed to an arc flash as excessive moisture allows for heat transfer through the garment to the wearer’s skin during an arc flash event. Staying dry is not just a matter of comfort, but it could also help save your life.

Garment fit, fabric functionality & the mid-layer

Leading workwear brands incorporate highly technical fabric choices into well-designed functional high-performance winter wear clothing. Due to advances in textile technology and improved garment design, today FR workwear can be both comfortable and FR compliant. A proper clothing ensemble works as an integrated system where layers can be added or removed to adjust to the changing external environment while providing adequate protection from arc flash or flash fire hazards. 

The mid-layer garment is typically unique to winter weather scenarios since in the spring, summer and fall, workers often work in just a single layer (FR shirt) or double layer system (FR Shirt, FR sweatshirt or light jacket). Typical mid layers include garments like single- and double-sided fleece sweatshirts, sometimes even worn as multiple mid-layers, vests and heavy woven shirts. Key features to look for with mid-layers to facilitate comfort include fabric breathability as we want to keep that quart of sweat we produce moving away from our body and out of our clothing system, high warmth as measured by Clo (similar to the R value used by the housing industry to quantity how warm the insulation is we have in our attics), and garment fit.

The mid-layer will ideally fit well over the base layer being worn offering a good fit and feel, which can be enhanced by having features that are needed by the worker depending on his job conditions. Features like garment stretch facilitate freedom of movement, being air permeable and fast drying when worn as a mid-layer.

More than just a jacket

The outer layer of the winter clothing system needs to accomplish many tasks and will likely be the most expensive article of FR clothing in the workman’s clothing ensemble. From a comfort and functionality standpoint the jacket needs to provide protection from the elements, primarily wind, rain, sleet and snow. These protections come from fabrics engineered to be knit or woven tightly to block wind and the application of a durable repellent fluorochemical technology to repel water, snow and also dirt.

Jackets available today are highly functional with many choices available; some offering “hybrid” garment design where multiple fabric technologies are combined into a single garment. For example areas of the garment exposed to high wear and abrasion may be made from a heavier or performance printed abrasion-resistant fabric. Other parts of the body of the jacket may be made from stretch fabrics or laminates where two different fabrics are bonded together to create a fabric with superior performance for FR, comfort and weather protection compared to a single layer or quilted garment. And in terms of garment design, today’s workwear jackets often look stylish; they help create a professional image for the company since this will be the garment that is most often seen by those people the worker interacts with on his way to, during and even after his workday.