Transitioning to FR Winter Work Wear
The cold weather is a hazard that should be treated seriously, but it's important not to compromise your workers' FR protection when trying to keep workers warm and safe from the elements.
Flame-resistant (FR) clothing is a critical element of a company's personal protective arsenal. Just like the high summer heat, cold weather is an occupational hazard, and when it sets in, you need to know how to combine cold protection with the FR properties of your PPE.
No one would put a flammable coat over FR coveralls, just like they wouldn't put flammable clothing under FR gear. A quick look at the stats on burns to the face, neck, wrists, hands, and ankles is enough to show you why that's a bad idea. But not everyone knows exactly how to put together an effective FR outfit for cold climates.
You will need to draft company policies and procedures for FR clothing that include making the transition from fall to winter. You also need to be ready for the cold before it's actually cold, and that means either having the stock on hand in all the right sizes or being able to access what you need with same-day delivery.
To help you prepare, let's go through some of the things you'll need to know when outfitting yourself or your employees for the winter.
FR Clothing for Cold Weather
What makes FR cold weather clothing different? While a basic flame-resistant outfit simply has to meet the requisite FR rating, a winter FR outfit also needs to keep the wearer warm, help them stay dry, and protect them from the elements. All of this can be achieved by layering with the right materials.
Layering for Warmth
Layering clothing is the best practice for working in cold environments. Simply put, the more layers covering your body, the warmer you'll be.
Three layers is standard for a complete winter outfit - FR or otherwise. A fourth layer is acceptable if you want more warmth and the extra garment doesn't compromise your ability to move freely and comfortably.
No matter how many layers you've got on, one thing is absolutely critical: the base layer (the one worn against your skin) must be non-melting. Garments made with synthetic materials catch fire more easily, burn longer, and can melt onto the body - all of which increases your risks when working with flame-related hazards.
If you're engaged in any tasks that carry a risk of arc flashes, the base layer will need to be arc-rated as well.
Protection from Wet and Damp Conditions
It's not just heat and insulation that matter when it comes to winter FR clothing. You also have to factor in the other weather and environmental conditions you may encounter.
When our bridge construction team worked over an ocean inlet on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada, a nice winter day would hover around 32°F. That's cold, but not cold enough to freeze the sea ice – that only happens when the temperatures hit 28.4°F or below. So, everyone on site had to dress warm but also needed an outer shell that would protect them from fire, heat, wind, and damp.
Factoring in the Wind
The wind chill factor makes a big difference when it comes to keeping workers safe and comfortable.
40°F weather is cold enough as it is. Now add a 20mph wind and you have a temperature that feels much colder. If you take a -5°F day and add that same wind speed, you have conditions that are cold enough to injure exposed skin very quickly and cause moderate to severe hypothermia.
So when you're dressing for the weather, make sure you look beyond the thermometer. Take wind speeds into consideration and layer up accordingly.
Full Body Coverage
Some workers want to lace up their boots, throw on a coat, and get on with their work. While that might be fine when the weather is very mild, a complete cold weather FR outfit will also keep the face, head, hands, and feet warm.
FR flash hoods in a balaclava style, for instance, will protect from arc lash, flash fire, and thermal hazards. That makes them a great first layer of FR protection for work in cold climates.
Hazard Analysis and FR Selection
Your safety management system should direct any hazard analysis on FR clothing to federal and state legislation and regulations.
When conducting your hazard analysis, you should speak with manufacturers and suppliers about which FR clothing will be the best match for the job tasks and the work environment.
Cost, sizing, supply, and cleaning are key considerations when selecting any FR clothing. When you're laying for warmth, you also need to make sure that the multiple layers can be worn without too much discomfort and without restricting the user's movements.
Also keep in mind that you may actually require workers to have access to have multiple sets of FR outerwear and layered inner garments. If the temperatures change throughout the workday, they'll need to be able to switch from warmer to lighter clothing. And if their clothing gets soaked or otherwise uncomfortable or compromised, having an additional set on hand will allow them to change and quickly return to work.
FR clothing is not expensive when you consider the cost of the alternative. Burns are one of the most painful, debilitating, disfiguring, and disabling injuries a worker can experience. Burns often require multiple surgeries, including reconstructive ones.
Likewise, frostbite, cold wind burn, trench foot, and hypothermia can all put a worker out of the game. On top of that, getting badly frostbitten means that the next cold exposure to that same area is made worse, even after the original cold exposure gets better.
Keep in mind that winter work often means work in low visibility conditions, whether due to shorter days or heavy snowfall.
And always include the workers who will have to work in the cold weather gear when purchasing your winter FR clothing. They will have insights from their own first-hand experience and they will thank you for soliciting their input.
For more seasonal content, checkout our Winter Safety Knowledge Center!