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Saving your Skin

The importance of protective clothing

Here's a trivia question for you: "what is the human body's largest organ?" If you're like a lot of people you start mentally imaging and comparing the sizes of the heart, the brain, the liver, the kidneys. Few of us get the correct answer: the skin.

Your skin is your largest, and also your most vulnerable organ so when you are working protecting your skin should be of paramount importance. While the topics we will discuss in this article certainly apply to more than skin protection, protecting our bodies very often begins with protecting our skin. There are workplace dangers to the skin, all of which have dire consequences if they are not properly addressed. As the most common way to protect our skin (and subsequently our overall health and wellbeing) we need to remember the cardinal rule of protecting our largest organ: wear clothes that are appropriate for your job, your climate, and the materials with which you will be working.

Protection from the sun

Whenever someone mentions the importance of skin protection people tend to think of protecting your skin from ultraviolet radiation (sunlight most particularly). While that is certainly important, it is only a small fraction of the danger your skin may face when you are on the job site. Performing a physically demanding job beneath the blistering sun poses myriad hazards from sunstroke to sunburn. While most workers don't like to hear it, wearing sunscreen beneath a long-sleeved shirt is the best way to protect yourself from the damaging radiation from the sun. You think sunburn is no big deal? Many forms of skin cancer are caused by repeated overexposure to the sun's harmful rays. Some people will argue (rightfully, I would add) that wearing a long-sleeved shirt in areas where the worksite temperature can easily rise above 37°C is more of a danger than sunburn, and we will address that in just a moment. When it comes to protecting yourself from ultraviolet rays there are two major considerations: fabric and colour. While fabrics may appear to be one piece of solid material, they are in fact composed of materials that contain thousands of threads, configured such that there are holes of various sizes. This is one variable in making certain materials softer and others more coarse. The more holes the more readily the harmful radiation will come into contact with your skin. Conversely, the fewer the holes, the more protection. Synthetic fabrics include acrylic, nylon, rayon, polyester, spandex, latex, and Kevlar.

Another factor in protecting yourself from the sun's harmful rays is the colour of the clothing. Black is the most effective colour of clothing for absorbing ultraviolet light, but red is also surprisingly effective. Because absorbing ultraviolet light tends to heat up these materials you may wish to wear light undergarments beneath the outer garments to reflect this heat away from the body and to pull sweat away from your skin.

Of course in extreme heat, layering garments and wearing long-sleeved shirts and full-length trousers is more than merely uncomfortable, it can also be deadly. Exposure to excessive heat can cause illness and even death. The most serious heat illness is heat stroke, but workers and employers should also be mindful of other heat illnesses, like heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash. There are simple things you can do to protect yourself and others when temperatures are high.

The easiest way to protect yourself from the heat is to know the risk factors that are most likely to cause injury or heat related illnesses.

“know the risk factors that are most likely to cause injury or heat-related illnesses”

“it is important that you recognise the symptoms and seek help”

Risk factors for heat illness:

  • High temperature and humidity, direct sun exposure, no breeze or wind
  • Low liquid intake
  • Heavy physical labour
  • Waterproof clothing
  • No recent exposure to hot workplaces
  • May stop sweating

Heat can affect different people in different ways so it is important that you recognise the symptoms and seek help if you start to exhibit any of the following symptoms of heat stress and heat stroke:

Symptoms of heat stroke:

  • Headache, dizziness, or fainting
  • Weakness and wet skin
  • Irritability or confusion
  • Thirst, nausea, or vomiting
  • Confusion, unable to think clearly, passing out, collapsing, or seizures

To help combat this, specially designed clothing that cools the body that may be necessary for workers. This type of protective clothing is close fitting and cools the body by circulating water or compressed air through tubing to carry heat away from the body. These cooling suits should be worn in addition to, not instead of, the clothing mentioned above.

A common mistake workers make is believing that they are not at risk of an ultraviolet-related injury because of cloud cover or chilling temperature. As long as it is daylight the sun is still shining and as long as the sun shines you are at risk of injury from ultraviolet radiation.

High visibility clothing

Perhaps the most widely known type of protective clothing is high visibility clothing. These garments, often known as "high vis" clothing are made of highly reflective materials in bright colours to increase the visibility of the person wearing them. People working in areas where there is a high volume of traffic of industrial vehicles or trucks like loading docks or warehouses are often required to wear high vis vests, t-shirts, or even complete uniforms made of high visibility material.

While high vis clothing is designed to protect you by making your presence more obvious to drivers and equipment operators, you should still exercise extreme care while working in these environments and always assume that the driver/operator cannot see you.

Fire resistant clothing

Fire resistant clothing is made of a nonflammable material and is typically used where the working conditions tend to produce sparks which might ignite non fire resistant clothing. This is relevant for people who work in dangerous settings exposed to electric arc (electricians, electric utility lineman, etc.); flash fires (refinery, chemical and pharmaceutical workers, etc.) combustible dust (granaries; paper and pulp mills; food processing; paint and many more industries); or any workers (especially maintenance workers) who may come in contact with energised electrical equipment.

In the case where the primary threat comes from contact with electrical arc flash, it is important that you chose a garment with the appropriate arc flash rating, you should consult your safety representative when selecting the appropriate fire-resistant garment. Fire resistant clothing will burn, but it will stop burning as soon as it is removed from the flame or burning material.

While most people think of fire-resistant garments as being limited to shirts and trousers, there are also fire-resistant gloves, and hoods to increase the protection commensurate with the risk of burns.

“unlike fire resistant clothing, fire retardant clothing is treated with special chemicals to reduce the likelihood of the clothing from engulfing the wearing by a fire”

Fire retardant clothing

Unlike fire resistant clothing, fire retardant clothing is treated with special chemicals to reduce the likelihood of the clothing from engulfing the wearing by a fire. This type of clothing is typically worn by workers where fire and explosion is a continual and pervasive threat to worker safety; for example, oil and gas exploration or refineries.

Because fire retardant clothing is treated with special chemicals, you should strictly observe and follow the manufacturer's instructions when it comes to laundering the clothing. Traditional laundering techniques and certain detergents can make the garment far less effective. Additionally, these garments can only be laundered so many times before they become ineffective, so over laundering is not recommended. Conversely, you should never wear garments that have become soaked or permeated with oil, petrochemicals, or gasoline simply to avoid excessive laundering.

It's important to remember that neither fire resistant nor fire retardant clothing is fireproof. These types of protective clothing are simply designed to protect you from a fire long enough for you to get to safety, and even then, you will have to remain vigilant, know your company’s emergency procedures, and take every precaution to avoid coming into a hazard that could set you on fire. Also, remember that you should always wear your fire retardant/resistant clothing as the outer layer of clothing to avoid it being rendered inert by having another fabric melt over it or act as an accelerant of the flames. Workers should avoid wearing hooded sweatshirts as they can act as vessels for containing burning liquids or other flammable materials. Another thing to remember is that while fire retardant and fire resistant garments offer some protection from flames they do little to protect you from the associated heat of the fire. Take that from someone who has been on fire more than a so-called safety expert ever should have been. Don't get set on fire; even in the best outcomes it still hurts worse than anyone should have to suffer.

Leather aprons

In some welding operations, leather aprons are used to protect the worker from the sparks associated with welding operations or hot work. These, in conjunction with fire-resistant clothing and leather or fire-resistant gloves, are used to protect not only from an injury from sparks, but also from the associated heat produced by a welding operation.

Chemical protection

Chemical protection garments come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations that rely primarily on the application and the type of chemical present. Chemical protection garments can range from gloves and safety glasses to protect against accidental splashes to full body suits (including a hood) to offer protection from chemicals that may become an atomised mist or another airborne hazard.

When it comes to protecting yourself from chemicals your best bet is to consult the Safety Data Sheet. A Safety Data Sheet is a document from the manufacturer that outlines the specific dangers posed by the material(s) with which you are working and will include precautionary measures including the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that you should use to protect yourself from these chemicals.

Cut and scratch resistant clothing

There have been truly remarkable advancements in clothing designed to protect workers from cuts, scratches, and punctures in the last 20 years. Kevlar, once reserved for bulletproof vests and similar items has become a mainstay in protecting workers from cuts on the hands and forearms. In years past countless workers suffered cuts on their hands and arms from handling razor sharp metal parts. While Kevlar is not 100% effective in eliminating all of these types of injuries, it has so tremendously reduced the number of cuts, scrapes, and puncture wounds that it’s overall popularity as an ingredient in PPE is scarcely debateable.

In all cases protective clothing is only as effective as the accuracy of the person who dons it. Loose fitting, ragged, threadbare, ill-fitting or otherwise inappropriately worn clothing significantly diminishes its effectiveness in providing protection.

“like any PPE, protective clothing is not a substitute for good decision making”

Like any PPE, protective clothing is not a substitute for good decision making, a healthy respect for the risks endemic to the tasks you perform, and the materials to which you are – or could be – exposed, shared vigilance among workers, and good industrial hygiene practices, but it does add another layer of protection and might just be the thing that saves your skin.

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Phil La Duke is an internationally noted thought leader on worker safety, culture change, and organisational development. He is the author of the weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com, and is a frequent guest blogger to www.monsterTHINKING.com, www.monsterWORKING.com, and www.safetyrisk.au.com. La Duke has been named one of the 101 most influential people in safety globally, is an editorial advisor and contributor to numerous prestigious publications. In addition to his writing credits, La Duke is a highly sought after speaker and consultant on safety and organisational change topics.