Get comfortable: PPE for electrical hazards

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Are you sitting comfortably? If you are, you probably haven’t noticed and that’s the beauty of being comfortable. The science of comfort as related to personal protective equipment (PPE) has taken some great leaps forward in recent years. No longer do difficult and dangerous jobs, like those involving thermal electrical arc hazards, need to equate with feelings of discomfort. But how has the development of PPE changed? Here I look at some of the major things you need to know when selecting PPE.

Defining comfort
We all know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable but conversely, if we are comfortable, more often than not, we don’t really notice it. The word ‘comfort’ has a number of meanings, around a lack of discomfort or pain, or more positively in terms of a feeling of ease or contentment. While it’s possible to describe and explain the science of comfort, it is nevertheless a subjective experience. After all, some of us like the feeling of being out in all weathers or taking a cold shower, while others prefer being cocooned in warmth.

For the human body to function properly, the temperature of our vital organs - namely the brain, heart, lungs and liver - has to remain at approximately 37°C at all times. Comfort has both a physical and a psychological or emotional element and they all interact. In other words, comfort combines human physiology and perception with physics and environment. Comfort is real but can best be understood as both objective science and subjective experience.

Comfort and protection
What we can safely say is that, however defined, the comfort of PPE is absolutely necessary for safety at work, especially when that work involves extreme conditions and/or specific risks such as working outdoors in foul weather or other factors such as fire or electrical hazards.

One hazard employers may need to protect workers against is electrical arcing, sometimes called a flashover or arc flash. An arc flash can occur for a variety of reasons - including due to a short electrical circuit caused by unsafe working practices - and can generate intense heat leading to serious burns to those nearby. As a result, if there is a risk of burns from arcing that cannot be completed avoided, employers may need to provide clothing capable of protecting against the intense heat of an arc.     

Historically, although PPE has offered suitable protection, this has come at the price of comfort. In the past, to make PPE safe enough, garments have often been heavy, bulky, have restricted the wearer’s movement, and been hot and uncomfortable. However, designers of PPE now increasingly focus on the experience of the wearers, and scientists and designers have been hard at work looking at ways to balance safety with wearer satisfaction.

The science of comfort has much to tell us, beginning with issues of heat and cold.

Simply put, if we become too hot or too cold, our bodies must adapt by sweating or shivering. Our bodies can rise above a normal temperature due to us carrying out hard physical activity or as a result of external factors like warm or humid weather.

In these circumstances our circulation increases and blood is pumped to the surface of the body. This triggers perspiration which acts to cool the body. This works well as long as the sweat generated has somewhere to go. However, if it can’t evaporate due to the nature of the clothing, workers will become and remain hot and can feel uncomfortable. This may not only result in loss of concentration but can lead to confusion, dizziness and even unconsciousness in the most extreme cases.

At the other end of the scale, being too cold leads to shivering, as this is our body’s way of warming us up. Again, there are cognitive and physical effects if we become too cold – such as loss of attention and poor muscle performance.

Therefore, if there is a risk of the worker becoming too hot and sweating, it is important to choose clothing that incorporates wicking to take sweat away from the body. And if cold is a problem, the clothing must provide adequate insulation, and may also need to be windproof and waterproof.

Fit and freedom of movement
A garment that fits well is more comfortable and should leave the worker unaware that they are being protected.

In stressful and dangerous work situations, end users don’t want to be thinking about their PPE being too tight or too loose, nor should there be any opportunity for clothing to rub, chafe or for clothing parts to get caught in items such as loose cables within the work setting. Moreover, it is known that badly fitting or restrictive PPE tends to lead to workers wearing it incorrectly or discarding it altogether, putting themselves at greater risk.

Technical developments in PPE for electrical arc incidents must of course initially focus on safety, by considering the protective qualities of the fabric, such as multi-layering. Recent innovations have improved comfort through a more comprehensive range of sizes and greater suppleness and movement in the fabrics used. This means better ergonomics that allow for smoother, easier freedom of movement. A more mobile worker is better protected and a safe worker is more productive.

Weight reduction and its impact on comfort
As well as fit and mobility, a very significant aspect of comfortable PPE is weight. Huge strides have been made recently in reducing the weight of garments designed for protection. Textiles which are functional for Class2 arc fault protection can be extremely heavy weighing up to 650 g/m2, resulting in a final weight of a jacket of even more than two kilograms. Here again, feedback from wearers who have in the past found this kind of weight impedes comfort and therefore efficiency, has led to research into how lighter fabrics can deliver high-quality protection. GORE PYRAD technology is now able to make garments that are 50 per cent lighter than previously available. As an added benefit, these garments are easier to look after, being machine washable and durable.

Benefits of getting comfort right
Workers in hazardous situations should not be impeded by the clothes they are wearing. Wise employers will buy the best PPE and ensure they are worn properly by consulting with and listening to wearers at all stages of the process. Safety should never be compromised, but the fine balancing act of protection versus comfort no longer needs to be in tension. As well as complying with stringent safety standards, employers can now offer workers lighter, less restrictive and breathable clothing. The implications and benefits are manifold. A comfortable worker is one who makes better decisions, works longer and more productively. They are less likely to lose concentration or to make mistakes that could lead to danger or to jobs being interrupted.

7 Top Tips

  1. Know your risk factors so that you can choose the correct PPE – Class 1 or Class 2 according to IEC 61482-1-2
  2. Know your comfort science – think about what comfort means in the context of your workers
  3. Consider breathability – unless PPE can let out moisture and insulate against cold, it won’t be comfortable
  4. Does it fit? End users will discard items that are not comfortable due to poor fitting
  5. Does it allow freedom of movement? Wearers must have freedom of movement with nothing to rub, pull or catch
  6. A lighter touch. Is PPE heavy and bulky or light enough to be comfortable?
  7. Talk to wearers. Involve them in choice, train them in correct use and ask for feedback on any new designs.

For any enquiries about the provision of arc-rated PPE please visit: www.goretexprofessional.com

Dr Peter Wimmer is product specialist for GORE PYRAD arc rated garments at W.L. Gore & Associates.


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