29 CFR 1910.132 requires that every employer assess the workplace, determine the hazards present, and then provide affected employees with appropriate equipment, including clothing, to protect them from the hazardous conditions. Performing a hazard analysis allows you to systematically ensure that your employees are properly protected.

A hazard analysis seems easy enough, but it is the very core of offering effective protective clothing. Without a good hazard analysis of not just every job, but every detailed task, it is impossible to provide protective clothing that you’re sure is adequate for the hazard. The hazard analysis should follow a written format that ensures all types of hazards, including heat, are addressed.

Beating the heat

With the summer months upon us, let’s examine the role of protective clothing in regards to providing protection from heat stress and other heat-related injuries.

Hand protection is one of the most widely used articles of clothing used for protection from heat. Technology and material advances in hand protection have provided industry with many more options than ever before. Overall, hand heat protection has become more protective, more comfortable and more specialized for particular applications.

To pick the appropriate glove for a specific task, heat cannot be the only factor in the evaluation. Here’s a brief list to consider as you select the proper glove for hot work and/or elevated temperatures:

  • Temperature rating — everything from just a thick work glove for a low-temperature task to 400°F, 1,200°F and 1,600°F protection.
  • What additional protection, such as cut and chemical resistance, liquid barrier, abrasion resistance, etc., is required?
  • What other features would be helpful such as gripping capabilities, dexterity and reflectivity?
  • What design style would be best suited for the task such as wrist length, cuffed or lower arm protection?

Torso protective clothing is also important to consider around heat. Torso protection is available in a wide variety of styles and for a multitude of uses. These include short/front only aprons, full length-full wrap aprons, coats and smocks. Again, the specific job task requirements should be reviewed carefully. Consider the employee’s need for reflectivity, temperature exposures and duration of use. Remember that in some cases protective sleeves will need to be worn as well as an apron.

Torso protection can offer a variety of exposure protection variations. Chemicals being used, distance from heat source, pressure of equipment or material exposed are all points to consider in making the proper heat protective clothing choice.

Personal cooling systems should be considered for all employees exposed to elevated temperatures as part of their jobs. This is another area where technological advancements in the past few years have brought many new and innovative products on to the market.

Vortex coolers are one such item. These are simple devices that plug into an airline and attach to the employee’s belt prior to going to the respirator, hood or suit. The employee can regulate the temperature of the air by simply dialing in the desired temperature of the vortex output. This devise works solely off of a compressed air line.

Other options include vests or suits with circulating coolant, and simple vests that have frozen blocks which line the torso of the employee. All these and other such products can work very well to keep your employees comfortable and safe.

Plain work clothes are often overlooked as adding employee safety and comfort. Everyone understands that a Nomex® piece of clothing offers more protection that a polyester one, but the levels of protection vary greatly and levels of safety can be specifically designed into the work task. For example, an electrician should have a different work clothes fabric than a mechanic would have. A welder should have a different clothes fabric than a forklift driver. As an EHS professional, you must match up the exposure with the proper attire, whether that is a heat-resistant suit or an everyday uniform.

Coupled with the proper fabric has to be training on how to best utilize any specialized clothing. The training must go beyond just what protection the special fabric will offer but the limits of its protection as well. Specialized material often needs particular underwear, liners or under layers to fully utilize their protective properties. Each employee should understand the complete protection capabilities of their clothing as well as the limits and factors that would increase or decrease its effectiveness.

Accessories are commonly overlooked when it comes to providing employees with good heat-protective clothing. To understand how you can provide your employees with the proper accessories to protect themselves from hot atmospheres or work conditions, think of a few that aren’t commonly issued: Bandanas filled with reusable cooling gel can substantially increase a worker’s ability to combat the heat. Some of these are offered in strips with absorbent material that can be frozen or chilled and then worn around the neck. Others are filled with high-tech gels that stay cool for long periods of time. When one gives out another can be ready in a designated ice chest.

Another example of an accessory for heat-stressed employees is a personal water tote that is carried on the employee’s back. After being pre-cooled in a refrigerator or freezer the tote can easily be strapped on like a school backpack and the employee is not only cooled by the chilled liquid but can take a drink from this reservoir by squeezing on a tube that reaches his/her mouth. These have become popular with cyclists and marathon runners. In some applications they’re great for workers as well.

Particularly in the summer, it is important to analyze each individual employee’s need for heat-protective clothing, make sure it’s available and ensure that workers are properly trained in using the products. This will allow both the employer and employee to gain the maximum benefit from the time and cost it took to provide it.

SIDEBAR: Working outdoors?

OSHA’s Working Outdoors fact sheet makes the following recommendations for employees working in the sun:

  • Cover up. Wear tightly woven clothing that you can’t see through.
  • Use sunscreen. A sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 blocks 93 percent of ultraviolet (UV) rays.
  • Wear a hat. A wide-brim hat, not a baseball cap, protects the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose and scalp.
  • Wear UV-absorbent shades. Sunglasses should block 99 percent to 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation. Before you buy, read the product tag or label.
  • Limit exposure. UV rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.