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Yesterday, we took a look at flame-resistant (FR) clothing for the workplace. This clothing can protect workers against fires because it is either made from naturally flame-resistant materials or materials treated with flame-retardant chemicals. This discussion touched on the importance of finding FR clothing that isn’t too stiff or too thick, as this clothing can make workers too hot, especially during summer months.

Winter PPE

Photo: Radians

What should you do, though, if you have the opposite problem? What if your workers spend much of the day outdoors in the bitter cold—like the sub-zero temperatures many northern states are currently experiencing—but they still need to be protected from fire hazards? These workers will need hats, gloves and other apparel to help them maintain their body heat and avoid frostbite, but the winter gear they bring with them to work might not be flame-resistant.

In situations like these, you should turn to the PPE market and see if what you need—protection from the cold that won’t burn—is available. In most workplaces, more than one hazard exists. For example, if workers were exposed to falling object risks and respiratory hazards, they would need respiratory protection that doesn’t interfere with wearing a hard hat. In the case of winter fire hazards, you need PPE that is dual purpose, providing two types of protection at the same time.

Flame-Resistant Head Protection

Radians, a PPE company, sells a thermal balaclava designed to protect the wearer’s head, face and neck from the cold. The balaclava can be worn so that it covers a worker’s whole head except for the eyes (as seen in the photo above), but it can also be folded so it only covers the face or so it just protects the neck.

Since the balaclava is made from polyester, it breathes better than other fabrics, allowing heat to dissipate if the wearer is performing manual labor. So what makes this piece of winter PPE different from others? It’s also flame-resistant (according to the ASTM D6413 Test, meaning it will self-extinguish when exposed to flame, although it does not have the highest degree of flame resistance available). This means if your workers will be working near machinery with flames (or where a fire could start), they will be able to keep warm, but also not risk burns should a fire occur.

Note: Like most FR gear, this balaclava will lose its flame resistance over time as it is laundered again and again, so make sure to replace it periodically. 

Other varieties of cold weather gear like this balaclava are on the market, too (like this one from Carhartt), so find options that work best for your employees. 

Consider All Hazards During PPE Selection

A product like these FR balaclavas allows you to keep your workers protected from all hazards present, not just one. During all types of PPE selection, you should make sure once piece of PPE doesn’t create another hazard (like a flammable winter hat might in certain work environments).

Many work situations call for dual purpose PPE. For example, firefighters often need PPE for both cold and fire hazards. A fire crew in Wyoming recently had to battle a fire that consumed more than a dozen local businesses in temperatures as low as -25 degrees F. These workers needed to be protected from extreme conditions, which even caused the water from their hoses to blow back toward them and freeze on their clothing.

PPE, Winter

Photo: Metropolitan Transit Authority of the State of New York

Don’t forget about guidelines for FR clothing during the winter, either. FR clothing should be loose to prevent burns, and so should winter clothing. In the winter, workers should wear loose layers that help insulate them from the cold. Make sure, though, that if fire hazards are present during cold weather, the outer layer of clothing is flame resistant and the innermost layer of clothing is also resistant to flames. Workers often like to wear moisture-wicking fabrics close to their skin in the winter to prevent them from getting cold while sweating, but some of these fabrics (like polyester) will burn if they’re not specifically treated to resist flames.

Your best bet is to assess your guidelines for flame-resistant clothing and your guidelines for winter clothing and see how they can be combined. Then make sure to share this information about how to dress with workers who might face both fire hazards and cold weather hazards.

Additional PPE for the Cold

Cold stress illnesses such as hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot and chilblains pose serious hazards in the winter. A person doesn’t need to be outside very long before symptoms of these problems can emerge, especially during very cold weather. Therefore, PPE is necessary.

Cold Weather PPE

If workers will have to deal with icy and snowy sidewalks and roadways, insulated, waterproof boots are a must. Adding traction by using ice cleats can also benefit many outdoor workers.

Make sure workers wear the proper layers of clothing and that they have waterproof coats if needed. Gloves are also a requirement. Hats should cover the head and ears, as about 50 percent of body heat is lost through the head. Consider providing eyewear like sunglasses if sunlight reflecting off snow is a problem.

Inform workers that if they get warm while working they should unzip their coats instead of removing their hats and gloves.

For more tips about preparing your workplace and workforce for the winter, read Winterize the Workplace.