Rainwear is a category of PPE that is often put on the back burner in favor of other categories like eye and hearing protection. It is often overlooked simply because rain doesn't happen every day. But when it does, workers need to be properly protected.
Let's face it, there's nothing pleasant about getting soaked in the rain. A soaked worker is an uncomfortable worker. And an uncomfortable worker is one whose productivity and personal protection are majorly compromised.
While OSHA does not set specific standards for working in the rain, they do provide guidance for outdoor industries that may be affected by rainy conditions, including construction and logging.
What Rain Gear Do You Need?
The first step in establishing a rainwear safety program is conducting a comprehensive assessment of the worksite and worker requirements. Safety professionals must understand employee needs and the hazards they face before selecting gear to protect them.
Here are some basic questions you need to ask:
- What tasks will employees perform in the rain?
- How long will workers be affected by the rain?
- Are there other hazards, such as chemical splash or risk of electric shock?
- Are specific rainwear standards applicable to this job?
- Does this application require breathable or non-breathable PPE?
- What is the climate like?
How Does the Climate Affect the Type of Rainwear Needed?
Your PPE needs are heavily influenced by the climate in which your employees work. Though it seems obvious, the northeast in July requires entirely different rainwear than in December, and you have to plan for the change in seasons.
Depending on the kind of hazards the workers will encounter, they might need to be equipped with rainwear that uses non-breathable waterproof materials. Non-breathable material tends to be heavier and doesn't allow good airflow to keep the wearer comfortable in the heat. Workers using non-breathable rainwear in extreme heat, then, will require additional PPE, such as cooling towels, to keep them cool and protect them from heat exhaustion (see New Trends in Equipment to Help Outdoor Workers Beat the Heat to learn about other options).
Things to Consider When Addressing Job Hazards
Simply protecting your workers from getting wet is one thing. Ensuring they aren’t at risk for electrocution, burns, or jobsite accidents is quite another. Employers must identify and account for these hazards when choosing rainwear for their crews.
Here are some things to consider.
Boots should be waterproof to protect workers’ feet and ensure comfort – no one is able to do their best work when water seeps into their boots and soaks their socks.
Make sure they also have strong traction to prevent slips and falls in wet conditions. This is especially important in the winter months when ladders are slick and puddles can turn to ice (learn more in 6 Tips for Safer Walking-Working Surfaces).
Appropriate rain gear should include both a jacket and pants. Wool or synthetic materials are great choices for cold weather, as they insulate even when they're wet. Be sure the suit fits properly so it doesn’t interfere with movement.
Inclement weather conditions and working outdoors in poorly lit locations can severely reduce visibility, putting workers at risk of being struck by vehicles and other dangers.
To ensure workers can always be seen, they should be provided with waterproof high-visibility jackets. High-visibility rain gear that has faded or become dull will do little to make workers noticeable and should be replaced immediately.
Some applications call for additional protection in the form of fire resistance (FR). This broad-reaching term means different things in different applications. In the electric utility industry, FR really means arc resistant – providing protection from an electric arc flash. The standards for this type of gear are outlined in ASTM F1891, Standard Specification for Arc and Flame Resistant Rainwear.
There are three things to look for when selecting FR rainwear:
- The arc rating – how much energy is required to create the 50 percent probability of a second-degree burn over bare skin
- The heat attenuation factor (HAF) – the percentage of energy that is blocked by the material
- The break-open threshold – the amount of energy it takes to create openings in the material (generally the outer layer of the rain jacket)
Getting the Right Kind of Waterproofing
Waterproof rainwear generally comes in two types: breathable and non-breathable. Let’s look at the best applications for each.
Breathable Waterproof Materials
Rain gear made from breathable materials have an exterior that does not let outside elements penetrate through it, but allows perspiration to dissipate through the interior coating. This helps avoid the clammy feeling that results from sweat building up next to the skin.
The protective coating is generally either a liquid coating that is applied to the shell fabric (minimal breathability) or a film that is applied using an adhesive (good breathability).
- Woven exterior with interior coating enhances durability
- Stitched and tape-sealed seams ensure integrity during inclement weather
When to use it:
- Construction applications that require ANSI/ISEA 107-2015 standards for hi-visibility
- Where employees are exposed to unpredictable climate conditions
- In applications where workers are not at risk for chemical exposure
Non-Breathable Waterproof Materials
Like the name suggests, non-breathable rainwear does not allow air to flow through. The material used is impermeable so as not to allow anything through the exterior coating and ensure complete protection for the user.
Since stitching can absorb chemicals, another potential hazard, these products are usually constructed using a heat-weld method to ensure the strength of seams without the need for stitching. This type of rainwear also has minimal features to reduce the risks of getting caught on equipment, tears, and, ultimately, exposure to dangerous chemicals.
It’s important to conduct an assessment of the job application and potential hazards before selecting non-breathable gear. Check with the manufacturer to confirm that the material used will maintain its integrity when exposed to the chemicals used in your workplace.
When to use it:
- Jobs with chemical applications
- Chemical blasting with high water PSI factors
- Sanitation and truck wash down applications
- Wastewater management, environmental clean-up, petro-chemical, and mining
Who Bears the Cost?
While OSHA requires employers to pay for workers’ personal protective equipment, they do not require them to cover ordinary clothing, including raincoats.
Several states, however, categorize rain gear as PPE. Be sure to look into this and find out what your rainwear obligations are in your state
Selecting the right rainwear for the right application isn’t as easy as it sounds. An initial assessment of workplace needs and risks is critical to ensure that the rainwear you choose is sufficient to address the identified risk factors. It’s not just about keeping workers dry – it’s about keeping them safe.
When it comes to working outdoors, I think we all can agree that “Dry Is Better.”