Preparing for Unpredictable Spring Weather

Preparing for Unpredictable Spring Weather

Spring is just around the corner, so it’s time to prepare with the proper protective gear for the season.

Spring is a time for rebirth, hope and renewal. It is a time for digging and planting and watching things grow. However, it’s also a time for unpredictable and severe weather. As American writer and humorist Mark Twain said, “In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.” English writer and social critic Charles Dickens said, “Spring is the time of year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade.”

What is called “meteorological spring” occurs from March 1 to May 31 each year. According to weather.com, “Wide-ranging weather impacts occur in those three months because of a battle between warmer air trying to budge farther northward and the last of winter's cold plunging southward out of Canada. That temperature contrast fuels a strong jet stream and, therefore, highly variable weather conditions.”

When It’s Spring, You Need These Things

Necessary jobsite gear to protect workers from wind and rain is crucial during springtime. Spring weather is unpredictable, bringing thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes and even snowstorms to jobsites across the country. Because of the highly variable weather conditions, every safety professional needs a variety of protective gear in their spring safety program. Windshirts, rainwear and cross-seasonal gear can help safety professionals prepare for the roller-coaster weather of spring.

What Are High-visibility Windshirts?

Windy days are often associated with spring weather, so wearing windbreakers is as commonplace as flying a kite in the spring. However, workers have another option to protect them at windy jobsites: high-visibility windshirts.

A high-visibility windshirt, like a windbreaker, protects workers from the wind. It also keeps workers visible to help prevent struck-by accidents. High-visibility windshirts are often designed with extra pockets and features that help workers keep essential tools handy.

Windshirts, which are typically longer than a windbreaker, can also offer protection from the wind in the upper leg area. They are usually classified as windproof or wind-resistant. Protective gear engineered with windproof fabrics will shield workers from the wind completely, whereas wind-resistant apparel will not. Wind-resistant apparel is more appropriate for 10 to 15 mph winds. Stronger winds will penetrate wind-resistant apparel, so it’s important to keep this in mind when choosing your gear.

Although a windproof garment sounds more desirable because it’s a total wind blocker, it isn’t as breathable as a wind-resistant garment. If workers have a physically demanding day ahead of them, they won’t perspire as much in wind-resistant shirts as they would in windproof apparel.

Windshirts are extremely versatile, comfortable and practical, and can be worn at a variety of outdoor jobsites. A windshirt can also be used with a base layer to keep workers comfortable without overheating. Windshirts made with ripstop fabric are extremely durable and lightweight too.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

Unfortunately, rainwear is often overlooked in jobsite assessments because it is not required daily, unlike hard hats, gloves and safety glasses. However, since springtime brings lots of rain, from light drizzle to downpours, every safety professional should evaluate the rain hazards workers will face. Getting caught in thunderstorms or even a steady drizzle without the appropriate rainwear creates uncomfortable, unsafe and unproductive workers.

Rain gear is also a difficult protection category to navigate as it needs to accomplish a lot of things. It needs to keep workers visible, dry, warm, cool and comfortable. It shouldn’t be too heavy, but it needs to be heavy enough to protect workers—especially when the elements are harsh or when workers are exposed to dangerous chemical splash.

Specifying rainwear can also be overwhelming because there are a lot of choices out there. Most rainwear fabric is made using a laminate or a coating that blocks rain and allows sweat vapor to escape. Laminates, which are more expensive, provide better waterproofing, breathability and durability when compared with coating. However, coating provides good waterproof performance, is often lighter in weight and is usually less expensive.

Asking the right questions and understanding some basic terms will help give you confidence in your rainwear choices. Plus, leading rainwear manufacturers employ safety specialists and product managers who can quickly help you identify your need and choose the appropriate rainwear solution.

Work Doesn’t Stop When It Rains

When assessing your jobsite for rain hazards this spring, ask these questions:

  1. What are the tasks that will be performed in the rain? Are they physically active tasks or inactive tasks?
  2. Duration of use—how long will the worker be impacted by the rain?
  3. Are there other hazards present, such as chemical splash or risk of electric shock?
  4. What rainwear standards are required for this job or application? (ANSI/ISEA 107-2015, F-1891/F-2733)
  5. Does the application require waterproof/breathable or waterproof/impermeable? 

Understanding Basic Rainwear Terms

What should I choose? Water-resistant, waterproof or water-repellant rainwear?

It is important to understand the differences between water-resistant, waterproof and water-repellant rainwear. This is especially important in spring months because storms and flash floods can create a miserable workday if not properly protected.

Water-resistant. Both “water-resistant” and “waterproof” designate the degree of water penetration.

Water-resistant apparel resists the penetration of water, but not entirely. This is considered the lowest level of water protection. It is breathable and can handle light rainfall and snow flurries for a brief time. However, during extended downpours and slanting sideways rain, your comfort and level of dryness will be compromised. Water-resistant outerwear is not designed to withstand heavy exposure to the elements.

Waterproof and the Hydrostatic Head Test (HH). A waterproof rain jacket is impervious to water, acting as a barrier to keep rain, sleet, wind and snow from penetrating the gear. It offers the highest level of protection from water and can be either breathable or non-breathable.

According to the Hydrostatic Head Test (HH), waterproof fabric should be able to resist a water pressure of about 1,500 mm (lowest) to 40,000mm+ (highest). It is measured as a length—usually in millimeters (mm)—representing the maximum height of a vertical column of water that can be placed on top of the fabric before water begins to seep through the weave. It is often used to measure the waterproofness of outerwear, tents and backpacks. The higher the number, the better the resistance to the rain.

Understanding HH grading numbers will help you make an informed buying decision about the outerwear that is best for your jobsite. See the chart below for easy reference to the HH grading scale. Please remember that the Hydrostatic Pressure Test, also known as the Water Column Test, doesn’t test real life situations, which are more dynamic than static.

According to Gore-Tex, “When a raindrop falls on a garment, the process is dynamic, but this is not simulated in the water column test. Even fabrics with very low water column ratings have turned out to be waterproof under real life conditions. The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) analyzed several garments made with fabrics whose water column ratings were below 120 mm and established that the garments remained fully waterproof when rainfall was simulated. These were closely woven fabrics with a water-repellent fabric treatment. Compared with ratings of 10,000 mm or even 20,000 mm, it is hard to believe that these fabrics could be used to produce waterproof garments. Nevertheless, in the retail trade, water column test methods and ratings are the generally accepted way of determining the degree of ‘waterproofness.’”

If you need to buy a lot of rainwear, you should also test the garment in the rain. Most top-tier safety companies will provide free samples to test and try out for industrial applications.

Waterproof, Breathable Gear. Breathable waterproof rainwear not only keeps the rain from touching your skin, but it is also constructed to move your sweat to the outside of the garment, keeping both precipitation and perspiration at bay. If the job requires lots of physical activity in a steady downpour, you will want to specify waterproof breathable rainwear since it usually allows for “moisture vapor transfer,” the efficiency of which determines if you feel comfortable or clammy.

Waterproof/Breathable products are usually constructed using stitched and tape-sealed seams to ensure integrity during inclement weather conditions.

Waterproof, Non-Breathable Gear. Non-breathable waterproof rain gear is great if you are just sitting or standing around outside in the rain. A lot of affordably-priced, general-purpose rain slickers and ponchos fit into this category. In addition to work applications, a lot of people will wear these at outdoor concerts and sporting events when it rains. However, if you become active in this attire, you’ll feel clammy and uncomfortable because the inside of the rainwear will become rather slick from the lack of moisture transfer.

In industrial situations with chemical hazards or hydro-blasting with high water PSI factors, choose rainwear products that are waterproof non-breathable. Features of these garments should be minimal to avoid catching on equipment, which could produce rips and tears, exposing workers to dangerous chemicals.

To specify the right industrial protective gear, also assess the types of chemicals used at the jobsite. For example, if the worker is exposed to acid, choose a rain jacket, bib or full suit that is impervious to acid. Acid gear often features double heat-welded construction for strength and reliability in hazardous conditions.

Water-repellent. Water-repellant refers to an extra surface coating that improves the overall performance of the rainwear. It is used to describe both water-resistant and waterproof products.

Most waterproof/breathable rainwear features an applied durable water-repellent (DWR) finish. DWR is a manufactured chemical that repels water, causing the rain to bead up and roll off the outerwear. This is similar to how wax on a car causes the rain to bead up and roll off the car, protecting the paint job beneath.

Just as you must periodically wax your car, you will also need to reapply a durable water-repellent treatment when it wears off. When is it time to reapply? The answer: when the rain stops beading up or if you start to experience cold spots from where the finish has worn off. Dirt and oils, which attract water, can also negatively impact the longevity of the DWR application.

Protective Gear That Meets Cross-seasonal Needs

Safety professionals have lots of options when it comes to choosing spring PPE. Options that shouldn’t be overlooked this spring include reversible, cross-seasonal 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 designs. There are even jackets in the marketplace that can be worn in seven different ways thanks to their clever design.

Removable fleece inner shells and zip-off sleeves allow the wearer to adapt to changing weather conditions, increased activity levels and new seasons and climates. If you get hot while working, it’s easy to remove the fleece or sleeves.

High-visibility fabrics on one side and stylish fabrics on the reversible side provide the wearer with hi-vis protection at work as well as an after-work jacket, too.

Cross-seasonal gear is a good investment because it is thoughtfully designed to transform from a jacket to a vest and from workwear to everyday wear. It can be worn in several seasons because of its versatility, making it a cost-effective PPE solution.

Let’s Spring into Action

This spring will mark the first anniversary of worldwide lockdowns due to COVID-19. 2020 was a challenging and unpredictable year filled with uncertainty, dismay, economic hardships, loneliness, sadness and anger. With vaccine deployment across the globe, let us renew our hope for a better year. As the poet Alexander Pope said in his poem Essay on Man, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

This spring, stay vigilant to keep your workers safe from COVID while also keeping them safe with protective gear that blocks the wind and rain that naturally occurs during this season. After all, a comfortable and safe worker is a hopeful and productive worker.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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