Written by Daniel Aday, Compone Administrators Safety & Loss Prevention Specialist
When I think of gearing up for cold weather, my first thought is of Randy, the younger brother of Ralphie, in the movie A Christmas Story. All layered up from his mother, he is sent out to walk to school in the morning wake of a giant winter storm. Poor Randy had too many layers that inhibited his movement and didn’t allow him to get back up after falling over. The idea that more layers, or even thicker layers, mean warmer clothes, is no longer true. Unless you carry around a portable battery system and a heating blanket or jacket, there is no such thing as “warm clothing,” there are only clothes that insulate well, not as well or not at all.
In fact, most of a general understanding of what is effective winter PPE, usually isn’t correct at all! It is important when picking out PPE for winter, or really any season, that we understand insulation, water resistance, breathability and materials.
What insulation is better for outdoor winter work – down or synthetic down? While down may be more durable, it loses its insulation properties very quickly when wet. Synthetic down clothing is usually water-resistant or may even be waterproof! So, if there is any chance that your gear may get wet, whether from rain, melted snow or even sweat, you should opt for synthetic down. Regardless of what PPE you have, a good understanding of how to keep warm is a must. A good clothing material for winter will keep cold out and warmth in. The ability of a material to trap air in, and hold it there, will make more of a difference than a thick dense fabric. The weight of a material does not directly correlate with how well it insulates. To find the best insulator fabrics, look for wool, synthetic down, polyester fleece or fiberfill. Additionally, reflective (shiny) jacket/pant liners will do a good job of trapping heat even before it needs to be insulated!
The biggest concern for winter work safety actually isn’t keeping warm, it’s the ability to keep dry. No matter how insulated something is, it won’t do any good if your clothing, especially on your feet, gets wet. Whether from the weather or from sweat, wicking away moisture and keeping it away is the most critical aspect to regulating a comfortable temperature. With proper winter attire, it could be very easy to generate enough warmth to start sweating the moment physical activity starts. Taking off a layer before beginning this type of work is best, to warm up to the clothing, rather than overheating, sweating, then exposing wet clothing to the freezing elements. After wet clothing is exposed to the elements, and there is change in the physical activity level, the moisture will pull heat away from your body a lot faster due to conduction and evaporation. For clothing that will come in contact with the skin, select clothing described as moisture wicking, such as polyester, wool or nylon blends.
With the most modern technology out there, grouped with the proven materials, winter PPE is not only becoming more desirable, it is becoming easier to work with and even safer. With new jacket, pant, boot, glove and base layer designs, we are able to effectively dress for the weather, regardless of what it might be at any given time. When picking out adequate PPE for highly physical jobs, look for waterproof jackets with inner jackets, armpit areas that can zip open that allow ventilation and breathability when starting to warm up, elastic cuffs or waistbands that can trap in warm, good fitting and high visibility. When working outside, the effectiveness of being seen is critical, as we may find ourselves at any given time near traffic and visibility is usually limited.
Don’t find yourself being a Randy with too many layers. Ensure your Winter PPE is effective, ergonomic and allows you to work safely and warmly!