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Selecting PPE for extreme conditions

Dec 23, 2020
6 min read
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By: Jim Bailey, managing director for the Americas for Red Wing Shoe Company

Though it’s difficult to anticipate and protect against every potential workplace injury, providing employees with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) can go a long way toward reducing the frequency and severity of injuries.

If all or part of your workforce faces tough, hazardous conditions – such as those found on construction sites, energy plants or offshore oil rigs – having a well-thought out strategy and a thorough, experienced PPE partner at your side can help mitigate the risk of injury.

Getting started

The first step toward finding the proper PPE is understanding what you need to protect against by assessing the work environment. This is crucial because work environments vary widely across regions, and thus so can the potential risks. Here are some common hazards to keep in mind as you get going:

  • Slips, trips and falls: Are the floors often covered in oil or other liquids that might increase the risk of slips or falls? Other examples of high-risk fall surfaces include polished concrete, slippery floor materials, stairs without no-slip treatments and uneven flooring.
  • Common impact sources: Are there any objects in the work environment that pose a risk of falling or being dropped on workers’ feet? For example, tools on raised tables, large crates being lifted or other heavy materials being moved.
  • Compression or rollover risk factors: Do workers interact with objects or terrain that might cause compression or rollover foot injuries? This could be automated closing doors, pallet jacks, forklifts or other heavy machinery.
  • Static dissipative causes: Are employees at risk of coming into contact with static charges from things like sensitive electronics or paint areas?
  • Electrical hazards: Does the work environment contain objects that might cause electrical injuries such as exposed or aging wiring or electrical equipment?
  • Puncture risks: Is there anything commonly found in the work environment, such as scrap metal, pallet nails or glass, that might puncture footwear and cause injury?

Hot environments

Along with the aforementioned hazards, workers required to perform their jobs in extremely hot environments must contend with the risk of serious heat-related injuries and illnesses. Illnesses caused by heat stress can include heat stroke, when the body’s temperature regulation fails and body temperature rises to critical levels; heat exhaustion, resulting in fainting or heat collapse; and heat cramps from an electrolyte imbalance caused by sweating. Since these heat-related conditions can physically and mentally impair the worker, they often increase the risk of other injuries.

When outfitting workers for hot environments, one important factor that shouldn’t be ignored is comfort. Even with great training, workers who wear specialized PPE for long, grueling hours might avoid properly wearing items they consider uncomfortable, which can put them at an increased risk for injury. This risk has only intensified as people have become accustomed to wearing sneakers and soft, breathable activewear materials in their free time, making many PPE options seem even more uncomfortable by comparison. Look for PPE that utilizes new material innovations to provide light, comfortable protection that adheres to safety standards, and don’t forget about the small things. Venting details on jackets to aid air circulation, the use of new, lightweight materials and other seemingly minor details can add up to make a real difference in worker comfort.  

If your company doesn’t already have one, consider establishing a heat illness prevention program. While the proper PPE is an important piece of the puzzle, it can’t do the job all on its own. A heat illness prevention program that provides workers with training around the hazards of heat stress, specific symptoms of heat-related illnesses and emergency situation preparation can go a long way to rounding out your worker protection efforts.

Cold environments

As with hot environments, workers in the cold must contend with common workplace hazards as well as exposure-related injuries such as frostbite.

If your workers battle the cold, they’ll need PPE that can keep them warm while protecting against other dangers. While this might sound obvious, it’s not as simple as you might think. There are many ways to stay warm on the job, but not all of them are conducive to other aspects of safety. For example, a worker might wear multiple layers of clothing to stay warm but end up sacrificing flexibility and comfort. In some cases – such as with gloves – wearing thick, bulky PPE may even limit one’s ability to do their job effectively. PPE that isn’t warm enough for the jobsite might also increase the likelihood that workers will wear it improperly or opt for gear that doesn’t protect against other hazards.

Small details can make a big difference for workers over the course of time. Elastic cuffs and waists to better keep out the cold, windproof membranes and breathable materials are helpful, yet sometimes overlooked features best not forgotten.

Another important aspect of cold-weather PPE is stability. Cold temperatures often mean sleet, snow and ice that can increase the risk of slips, trips and falls. To combat this, look for work boots with outsoles engineered to withstand extreme temperatures, tridirectional traction lugs to improve grip on challenging terrain, a defined heal breast to enhance downhill breaking control or rubber outsoles proven to grip ice.

Finally, it’s important to think about how both environmental factors and PPE components interact. Being cold is often a function of being wet and in order to provide protection from the elements PPE items often need to work together. For example, a three-layer waterproofing system in a pair of work boots requires the boot, socks and a waterproof bootie to work together to keep out moisture and thus the cold.

You’re not on your own

If you’re looking for PPE, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. A good PPE partner will form a close, strategic relationship with your company to help determine the biggest safety risks posed to workers, whether common or extreme, and provide ongoing solutions and education to mitigate the risk of injury.                                   

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