Safe, Comfortable & Compliant: How to Avoid Heat Stress
By Rich Lippert, QSSP
Technical Director for GlenGuard
From repairing electrical lines with thousands of volts running through them to orchestrating precise tasks hundreds of feet above the deck on an oil rig, lineman and oil and gas workers face countless hazards daily.
And yet during the harsh summer months, they often face another unavoidable challenge: heat stress. Many parts of the country cannot elude sweltering temperatures and punishing humidity, from the Florida panhandle to the oil fields of west Texas to California's San Fernando Valley. But with the right safety program, there are steps workers can take to avoid the dangerous—and sometimes fatal— effects of heat stress without sacrificing the AR/FR protection they need.
Specify Comfort, Ensure Compliance
One of the most important ways workers can stay safe on the job also helps them stay compliant with crucial AR/FR regulations. By specifying a lightweight, breathable FR garment, workers can stay focused on the task at hand without taking safety risks or getting distracted by how uncomfortable they are. With the right FR garments specified, workers will not want to roll up their sleeves or unbutton their collars, risking the critical protection from arc flash or flash fire in the event of an incident. If workers are comfortable in their workwear, they'll be less likely to make life-threatening mistakes.
Here are four key elements to consider when specifying FR garments for workers at a high risk for heat stress:
- Lightweight: FR fabric should weigh as little as possible while still providing the required level of protection
- Quick-Drying: Once saturated, FR fabrics should dry quickly to enhance comfort and reduce the risk of additional exposure
- High Permeability: This helps allow for greater moisture evaporation and heat dissipation away from the body
- Maximum Dispersion: FR fabric should help move moisture off the skin, which aids the evaporation process
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
The process of sweating helps the body stay cool. But as temperatures climb and perspiration increases, it's important to replenish those fluids with water. Workers should be provided the opportunity to hydrate frequently before, during and after activity. In fact, they should aim to drink at least 8 ounces of water for every 20 minutes of work. Workers have enough to worry about when it comes to their daily tasks on the job, so a good safety program will ensure they have access to water whether they remember to bring their own supply or not.
The power of a good night's sleep cannot be over-emphasized. Yes, we could all stand to get more sleep, but when your job exposes you to life-threatening voltages on a daily basis, staying sharp and focused is vital. In addition to helping workers create their own nighttime routines to ensure a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep, a good safety program will also designate scheduled breaks throughout the day. OSHA, in fact, stipulates that "workers should, wherever possible, be permitted to distribute the workload evenly over the day." This step is doubly effective when they also have the ability to rest in a shaded or air-conditioned area. This escape from the harsh heat allows for their internal temperature to return to safer levels.
Teamwork is Paramount
By encouraging each member of your team to watch out for one another, you are creating another system for catching mistakes or oversights that can lead to harmful consequences. If workers are looking out for one another and know how to spot potentially dangerous situations, you are creating a contingency plan in the event that someone is on the verge of a heat stroke or exhibiting symptoms of heat exhaustion. It's also crucial that this step is set up as a helpful buddy system—not as a way to create trouble for a teammate.
Take a Wholistic Approach
It's your job to keep your workers safe and compliant, but with so many risk factors, it can be tough to accommodate for both comfort and protection. Many AR/FR garments meant to protect workers can unintentionally put them at greater risk of heat stress. So along with the other steps you take to prevent heat stress (adequate hydration, rest and teamwork), make sure your AR/FR garments are working for your safety program—not against it. If your garments are lighter, more breathable and wick away moisture from the skin, workers should be able to stay safer and more compliant without increasing their risk of heat stress.