Get Ready for the Heat with Cooling Technology
Protective apparel that keeps workers cool should be a safety priority.
- By M.B. Sutherland
- Mar 01, 2021
Human beings have been working in the heat since the beginning of time, but even in our modern age, physical exertion in hot temperatures too often leads to serious heat illness. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that 11 workers are seriously injured or die from heat stress every day in the United States.
This statistic would be bad enough for any type of accident, but heat illness is 100 percent preventable. Whether it’s due to lack of information, complacent attitudes, limited cooling solutions or some combination of the three, this problem remains at the top of safety managers’ concerns.
The good news is that manufacturers have been hard at work inventing new solutions to keep workers cooler and safer in surprisingly convenient ways.
Tried and True Heat Stress Busters
Before you begin exploring the latest and greatest in body cooling solutions, make sure you have the basics in place. The first, and possibly most important way to start, is with training. Team leaders who understand and share the basics of heat stress avoidance are leaders who will have fewer employees in distress. But many employees, and sometimes even managers, don’t fully understand how the body responds to overheating, and often think they can simply wing it with a little water and a wide brimmed hat.
Training that emphasizes hydration the night before, on the job and after the job, as well as factors like medication and alcohol that can change the way the body responds to the heat is crucial. Educate your whole team about the dangers of microclimates—areas of the job that are hotter than others due to hot machinery, lack of shade or other factors. Keep cold water and electrolyte-replacing beverages on hand. At the same time, emphasize that in hot working conditions, hydration alone will not prevent heat illness without additional body cooling measures. Change any hot day’s schedule to include more rest breaks, and above all, make sure everyone from the job foreman to the newest worker knows the signs of heat stress and how to respond to the four levels of heat illness, up to and including deadly heat stroke.
Traditional Cooling Products
Manufacturers studied the biggest complaints about traditional body cooling garments—that they didn’t get cool enough, the cool didn’t last and the chemicals on the fabric tended to create an unpleasant, slimy feeling when wet. Many of these products feel cool for a short time after getting them wet, but workers report that the refreshing item they started with turns into a burden, as absorbed water and sweat heats up quickly and can eventually even impede body cooling by holding hot moisture against the skin. Also, workers in remote locations had no way to refresh these garments throughout the day since any cold water on site was usually meant for drinking, not re-saturating a hot, limp bandana.
Other tried and true methods of keeping workers as cool as possible work a bit better, but still have their drawbacks. Products like cooling vests help to keep the wearer’s core temperature down, but don’t necessarily feel refreshing. It’s a “trust me, it’s working!” solution that both safety managers and employees may find cumbersome, and it only works for a short period of time in a long workday.
Efforts to address these problems spawned a revolution in the industry that gave us far superior body cooling garments that use HydroActive technology. The special weave of these fabrics harnesses the power of natural evaporation instead of chemicals. With just a little water of any temperature (even very hot water) and a quick wring and snap, the fabric cools down to as low as 30 degrees below average body temperature in 60 seconds and stays cool for as long as two full hours. Perhaps best of all, the garments can be reactivated an unlimited number of times through the workday. So, a worker could literally grab a half empty water bottle that had been sitting in the sun all day and use it to activate their bandana for instant cool refreshment, thereby saving the cold water from their drink station to stay hydrated.
This technology was a true game changer in keeping workers safe in the heat. Manufacturers created several product types, including towels, neck gaiters, bandanas and even skull caps. The only catch, of course, was that it had to be an item that workers could get wet, wring out and put back on again.
The demand for body-cooling gear that didn’t rely on adding water sent manufacturers back to the lab to experiment with different weaves and materials to give safety professionals even more options for keeping workers safe in the heat. The result is the latest in cooling technology—VaporActive fabrics.
These fabrics employ a patent-pending construction to remove sweat from the body and allow it to evaporate to cool the wearer down. The first layer of the garment pulls heat and moisture away from the skin and actually passes it through to the outer layer, leaving the skin-side dry to the touch. Then, the outer layer allows the moisture to evaporate. This provides the double benefit of keeping the wearer both cool and dry, allowing the body to stay at a safe temperature through the natural process of sweating, without leaving the fabric soaked in that same sweat. It’s a bit like changing into fresh clothing, without actually having to change.
These garments are ideal for hot conditions, but they’re also useful for layering up in the cold as they prevent base layers from becoming saturated with sweat that can lower body temperature in cold conditions.
Use All the Tools in Your Toolbox
The beauty of all of these products, methods and pieces of information is that you don’t have to pick just one. In fact, a combination of education, hydration, breaks, shade, traditional methods and new technologies are your best defense against the potentially devastating effects of overheating. Choose the best options for your workers to make this avoidable and too common injury a thing of the past!
This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.