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Barriers to Hazards

Published: 07th May 2015

As many hazards are introduced through people’s interactions with processes and equipment, the importance of safety barriers in industry cannot be over emphasised.

Far from being just fences or blockades, the term ‘safety barriers’ also signifies protective models used to guard people, assets and the environment from unplanned events that have the potential to cause harm. The barriers are physical and non-physical means established to hinder, lessen or mitigate the occurrence of accidents. Although developments in technology and process automation reduce risk, so long as there is human input there will be the risk of human error. As such, appropriate safe measures must be put in place to mitigate this and keep workplaces safe and businesses successful.

Safety barriers are not a new concept: they have been used frequently in workplace best practices, highlighted in safety literature, and above all, are necessary for compliance with legislation and standards to work effectively without harm.

Barriers can hinder or limit the escalation of incidents, but must be properly selected and positioned to effectively mitigate the event. The quantity of safety measures put in place can guide the appropriate level of protection in case of an incident. Despite increasing awareness of workplace safety issues, many employees in industrial environments still do not have a thorough understanding of how to prevent workplace injuries.

This article focuses on the role of safety barriers in mitigating risks, in particular the use of cooling devices in workwear as a barrier to prevent heat stress.

Protective barriers

In the context of this article, safety or protective barriers can be any defence, layer of protection, or protective system to keep people, assets and the environment safe from harm.

The depth of protection offered by any safety system increases when multiple barriers are put in place to eliminate or control hazards, e.g. the hierarchy of controls. Working in an environment in which risk has been considered and mitigated at every possible step helps employees to feel confident that appropriate measures are in place before entering into a potentially dangerous situation.

Mitigation measures are put in place during the design of facilities and equipment in an effort to engineer hazards out of the situation. Administrative barriers are also established to identify and manage risks, including life saving actions, procedures, permits, checklists, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Many process safety events and incidents are the resultant effects of a complex series of decisions that probably occurred over a long period of time, building up to catastrophic events. Barriers can sometimes slow down processes or be difficult to use, but the right choice is to carry out the task in the correct manner – even if that takes longer. Easier in theory than practice, especially with the time pressures of modern workplaces, but this is a matter of changing our safety culture.

Even though barrier systems are available to suit to every task and environment conceivable, the most important barrier is you.

Your personal commitment and ability to decide whether or not to accept a risk is the key factor in reducing the occurrence of workplace accidents. Some of the highlighted barriers that are used to prevent accidents are provided in Figure 1.

Case study

In 1980, there was an explosion at the New Jersey Exxon Refinery, which was linked to the failure of barrier systems. Due to discomfort caused by the PPE provided the worker involved did not wear his protection. Without any protective barriers, the worker involved suffered burns to more than half of his body, spent more than five years in hospital, and underwent in excess of 30 surgical procedures including facial rebuilding.

Some of the root causes attributed to this incident were non compliance with procedures, taking shortcuts, complacency and risk tolerance.

Failures in barrier systems have the potential to cause devastating incidents. Company executives must work to ensure that measures are in place to preventing serious injuries related to every day activities. Figure 2 has the overview of failed barriers that led to the aforementioned refinery explosion.

Cooling workwear

Protective workwear is an important barrier to workplace hazards. It serves as the last line of defence for workers and is vital to safety and health when faced with hazardous conditions. Where workplace hazards cannot be eliminated or sufficiently mitigated through the use of engineering and administrative controls, workers rely on PPE such as helmets, gloves, goggles, boots and clothing for their safety.

It is of paramount importance that workers are trained in the correct use of this equipment, have awareness of situations requiring workwear and are able to select the appropriate PPE based on potential hazards and risks to be faced. They must also have knowledge of its limitations – when it is to be worn, and how to use it in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. It is important to note that using workwear may constitute a risk to individuals during hot seasons.

This article falls in the holy month of Ramadan where people fast from sunrise to sunset, which can mean 14 hours daily for 30 continuous days. The combination of soaring temperatures, outdoor work and fasting can introduce complications and potentially endanger workers.

The significant theme here is to emphasise the importance of staying safe while working in the heat - hence a focus on cooling workwear.

Wearing workwear in the heat and carrying out physically demanding tasks at the same time could expose workers to heat-related illnesses. The risk of working for prolonged periods under excessive temperatures could give rise to heat stress that is capable of causing severe injuries to workers.

In the heat of the midday sun, the summer temperature in Abu Dhabi has been known to reach 47°C with a relative humidity of 10%. With the sea breeze flexing up in the afternoons, the temperatures can drop to 36°C by nightfall, while the humidity can rise to 43%. Under these environmental conditions, therefore, it’s important for the management of the workgroup organisations to be aware of the risks and make sure effective safe measures are implemented to protect employees.

Every year many lost time injuries (LTI) are recorded as a result of heat related illnesses - these could be avoided through good management and controls. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to ensure workplace risk assessments are conducted, enabling them to select the most appropriate means of reducing any identified risks to an acceptable level. Employers must eliminate or reduce risks to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP), thereby protecting everyone in the workplace.

For employees in tropical regions, cooling workwear can help to prevent heat stress. Heat stress occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature.

Heat stress

Heat stress can take many different forms, as outlined in the following sections. The Safety in the Heat campaign, run by the Abu Dhabi Health Authority (HAAD), is a very helpful resource for further information:

Heat exhaustion Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include fatigue, headaches, dizziness, pale appearance, moist/clammy skin, nausea, fever, and thirst.

Heat stroke Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat stress, which occurs when the body stops sweating. As sweating is the body’s natural way of cooling down, without this process the body temperature rises quickly. If this temperature does not come down the individual may have convulsions or fall into a coma. Heat stroke can be fatal.

Heat disorders Heat disorders could result in imbalance, heat edema (swelling of the extremities), skin rashes, loss of physical and mental capacity, and dehydration.

Heat rashes Prickly heat occurs on skin that is persistently wetted by sweat that can't evaporate. Heat rash may become infected if left untreated. In most cases, heat rashes vanish when the affected individual returns to a cooler environment.

Heat cramps Signs and symptoms include muscle spasms, pain in the hands, feet and abdomen. You should not wait until you're thirsty to drink; water must be taken frequently in hot environments.

Heat stress is a very serious illness that without early intervention could require emergency medical treatment. When working in hot regions, protective clothing could cause workers to overheat and may lead to distress, restlessness and increased sweating. Ambient heat from the equipment and processes contributes to heat stress. A typical example, from a personal experience, occurred during a project working offshore of Nigeria. It was hot weather and an injured person (IP) received new coveralls, but did not read the attached instructions from the manufacturer before donning. The manufacturer’s advice was to dip the garment in water to dilute the harsh effects of the chemical used in production, which could react and harm the skin. Failing to do this, the incident resulted in Seborrhoeic dermatitis.

Often industrial employees refuse to wear PPE because of the discomfort it causes, particularly its unsuitability during hot climatic conditions. While this is understandable, it is not an acceptable practice as it could expose them to more severe risks. In order to prevent these effects, management needs to ensure persistent education, awareness and training is given on the correct selection and use of PPE that has the potential to help the user with cooling abilities to reduce the effect of heat stress, consequently reducing severe injuries and illnesses. The cooling clothes contain a number of properties that make them suitable for use when weather becomes warm and humid, in addition to seeking better fabric choices. It is important to ensure the best fabrics are selected for appropriate seasons, are fit for purpose and are comfortable. Tight or unfit clothing could be disastrous in hot weather. When procuring user-friendly clothing for hot conditions it’s a good idea to involve employees in the selection process.

Cooling fabrics

The use of cooling fabrics in workwear is well suited to the Middle East region during hot periods. The combination of heat and high humidity can be particularly difficult, as sweat evaporates less quickly from the body in humid environments, meaning a less of cooling effect is experienced. With this in mind, workwear to be used in tropical climates must maximise the flow of air through the fabric, thereby allowing heat and moisture to escape.

It is important for the wearer to know the type of cooling effect that the fabric will offer in order to enjoy it. Also, because there are various types of cooling fabrics with different techniques, it would be good for users to undergo appropriate training on the usage of each type of PPE.

Types of fabric

Some types of fabric retain heat by providing an insulating layer on the skin, while others return the heat back to the body and prevent the outward flow of moisture and warmth, as is true of synthetic fibres such as polyester. A fabric’s ability to absorb water is another important factor to consideration in procurement.

Some synthetic fibres allow sweat to build up, reduce evaporation, and give rise to discomfort and skin irritation. Natural fibres are generally a better option, as they are good at absorbing moisture from the exposed skin and allowing it to evaporate from the outer surface.

High performance fabrics are now widely available that offer sweat wicking properties. These keep the skin comfortable as the fabric dries extremely quickly. Performance fabrics, however, can be more expensive than workwear made from natural fibres, which is a pressing factor when procuring PPE.

As a good practice, some of the best fabrics for use in tropical climates are the ones made from natural materials such as cotton, rayon and linen. Wool and silk retain heat and may lose strength when exposed to perspiration and very strong sunlight.

Cotton Cotton is a very good material and is widely used in protective clothing for hot temperature regions, as it allows free movement of air through the fabric and as such dissipates heat. Organisations are encouraged to procure fabric of this nature for employees. Cotton absorbs moisture and generally keeps the skin dry through rapid evaporation. One side effect is that it could absorb lots of water and would take a long time to dry out. Therefore, thin and lightweight cotton fabrics are recommended for use in hot and humid parts of the world. It’s also known for its durability.

Linen Linen and cotton have a lot of similar qualities in terms of coolness, absorbent capacities, and wearer comfort. Linen dries quickly and easily when wet or damp, which a good characteristic for use in tropical climates. It can be easily washed and is relatively resistant of stains. It creases easily and can be difficult to iron. It’s also vulnerable to fungus and moulds, which might be a problem in areas of high humidity.

Rayon Rayon is a semi synthetic fibre made from natural raw materials that are similar to the natural fibres in its properties. The fabric is made from natural cellulose, which is then exposed to various chemical treatments to create fibrous materials suitable for clothing. It’s very cool and comfortable to wear, similar to cotton and linen. It does not trap body heat, and absorbs water easily making it suitable for use in tropical conditions.

Rayon has limited strength and durability and this should determine the method of cleaning. Rather than regular washing, rayon dry cleaning should be encouraged. There are, however, other types of rayon such as high wet modulus, which are stronger and can be washed in a standard machine. Management should determine the suitability of this fabric before procurement.


To a large extent, workwear in light colours is a good choice for hot climates, as it will reflect light and heat. The most common colours chosen are white, beige and pastels. The clothing should be fit for purpose and can be decorated accordingly, provided it allows air circulation to the body. Choosing cooling fabrics for workwear helps to keep the body dry, which prevents rashes and skin infections. Cool suits should be used as much as possible under slicker suits. It is recommended that white, short sleeve, thin cotton T-shirts are worn under coveralls. Cooling bandanas are recommended for keeping the head and neck cool.


Workers in hot environments are subject to heat stress, heat-related illnesses, and the real possibility of workplace death - unless proper precautions are taken. Employers are obliged to protect workers, and special attention to this should be paid when workers are observing Ramadan. Cooling fabrics in workwear would be required to control core body temperature during the hot season. Most essentially, risk assessments must be conducted to determine proper selection of PPE and employees should be part of the selection process. Employers in the Middle East should take note of the importance of cooling workwear and make sure workers use it so they stay protected at all times.

Published: 7th May 2015 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Mohammed Abdul Karim
Mohammed Abdul Karim (GradIOSH, MIIRSM, MAIChE, IRCA Certified Safety Auditor, and MCSSE) is a safety expert with 15 years of experience in safety, health and environmental management and consulting to internationally recognised multinational oil and gas companies.