Working on an oil rig is challenging enough, but when temperatures drop, workers need all the protection they can get. Without it, they may be at risk of frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot, and other cold-related injuries. These can change the entire course of an oil rig worker’s life. In the worst situations, an unprotected worker could die from exposure.
The right cold-weather gear is a rig worker’s first line of defense against winter weather.
Winter Weather Is More Dangerous than the Summer Heat
Cold temperatures are more dangerous than the summer heat, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics. The study found that about 2,000 Americans lose their lives from weather-related causes each year. 63% of these deaths are caused by exposure to cold, while only 31% are attributed to hot weather.
Why are cold temperatures dangerous? Referred to as “environmental cold” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), low air temperatures, wind, and wet weather can expose workers to cold stress. This term is used to describe various cold-related injuries that are caused by exposure to low temperatures, including hypothermia and frostbite. The risk of cold stress increases as temperatures drop. Wind chill and dampness (including rain or even a worker’s sweat) will enhance the effects of cool or cold temperatures, with some cold stress injuries occurring in temperatures as high as 60°F.
Oil rig workers, both offshore and on land, may be at risk of suffering harm from environmental cold.
How Oil Rig Workers Are Affected by Cold Weather
During the winter, oil rig workers may be exposed to rain, hail, snow, wind, and ice. While cold temperatures are dangerous enough, when you take wind chill into account, it can be difficult for your body to stay warm enough to function. Wind draws heat from the body at an alarming rate. According to the National Weather Service, frostbite and hypothermia will set in much faster as the wind increases. This Wind Chill Calculator displays exactly how much colder a person will feel when exposed to varying wind speeds and temperatures.
Water is another factor that can make low temperatures particularly dangerous for rig workers. This is a continuous risk on offshore oil rigs, where damp air and rough seas can spray the decks and workers with water on an almost constant basis. Wet clothing and skin will lose heat much faster than when they are dry. If a rig worker falls overboard, the risk of hypothermia and drowning is high. While it may take about 15 minutes for hypothermia to set in, many people who fall into cold water drown as a result of cold shock response, which affects breathing, heart rate, and the ability to move–leading to drowning.
Another factor to note is that wind chill and water can make seemingly moderate temperatures dangerous. It does not have to be below freezing outside for oil rig workers to experience cold stress injuries. Even water that is about 59°F may be cold enough to cause a cold shock response. Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60°F.
Prevention is the best way to address cool and cold temperatures on land rigs and offshore platforms.
What Types of Cold-Weather Gear Do Rig Workers Need?
The right cold-weather gear is essential for rig workers to stay warm and dry, but what is needed and why? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers helpful information and guidelines related to cold weather and the responsibility of employers to provide appropriate clothing and other equipment to keep workers safe in the following guide: Protective Clothing for Cold Weather Worker Safety.
OSHA recommends the following cold-weather gear for workers:
Workers should wear at least three layers of clothing. The inner layer is meant to keep moisture away from the body while keeping body heat in. Wool, silk, and polypropylene are typically the right fabrics for inner layers in cold weather. The middle layer gives additional protection from water and the cold and should be made of wool or synthetic materials. The outer layer is meant to provide wind and water/rain protection while allowing ventilation to prevent a worker from overheating. Clothing should fit properly. If it is too tight, it can prevent circulation, which is how the body keeps warm.
A knit mask or other face covering should be worn to protect the face and mouth from exposure to the cold.
Keeping the head and ears warm is another part of staying safe in cold weather. Oil rig workers should wear protective head coverings to guard against the cold and retain heat. Earmuffs and hats can provide sufficient protection in winter weather.
Gloves are important for most workers who deal with heavy machinery, volatile substances, and powerful equipment. In cold weather, they can also serve to protect rig workers’ fingers and hands from the elements. Gloves can prevent frostbite and other catastrophic cold-related injuries.
Socks might not be at the forefront of your mind when you think of staying warm, but the right socks–and multiple layers of them–can protect your feet from the cold. It is also recommended to have extra pairs of socks on hand, as they can become damp and should be changed as often as possible for comfort and safety.
Footwear is one of the most important parts of cold-weather gear for oil rig workers, not only to prevent slip and fall accidents or falls overboard but also to protect the feet from trench foot, frostbite, and other irreversible trauma. Depending on a worker’s duties, waterproof boots or reinforced footwear may be required to protect the feet from cold temperatures, water, and crush injuries.
Visibility is always crucial on an oil rig. In the winter, visibility is likely to be severely limited, making it crucial for workers to wear reflective gear. Reflective clothing, head coverings, and even light-up features can help workers remain visible as the days get shorter and winter storms set in.
Other Protective Gear
Oil rig workers may also need to wear other protective gear, including lifejackets, flame-resistant clothing, safety glasses, hearing protection, harnesses, and hard hats.
The Best Fabrics & Materials for Cold Temperatures
The type of fabric a rig worker wears for each layer of their cold-weather gear will ultimately determine their ability to stay warm and dry.
Silk is soft, comfortable, and a natural thermal regulator. Lightweight and breathable, it is best worn as a base layer of clothing underneath one or more layers in cold temperatures. Silk’s ability to maintain body temperature makes it an ideal cold-weather fabric.
Wool is often ideal as a middle layer of clothing in cold weather. It is an excellent insulator, regulating body heat and repelling the cold. Tweed, flannel, and other woolen fabrics are often preferred by rig workers and others who spend time outdoors in the winter.
Nylon & Polyester
For an outer layer in cold, wet, and windy weather, nylon and polyester are prime choices. They are waterproof and durable, providing protection against the elements while your inner layers of clothing keep your body warm. GORE-TEX, which was invented in the 1970s using a new polymer called expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), was the first waterproof, windproof, and breathable fabric of its kind.
What NOT to Wear in Cold & Wet Weather
There are certain fabrics and materials that are not conducive to cold weather:
Although cotton is comfortable, breathable, and lightweight, it is not an ideal fabric for oil rig workers in the winter. It absorbs water and will become heavy and useless once wet. It does not provide much protection from cold temperatures and wind.
Goose, duck, and synthetic down provide excellent insulation, but they can be expensive and will absorb water. They do not provide insulation when wet and take a considerable amount of time to dry.
Non-Insulated Work Boots
Work boots with reinforced toes, like steel toe boots, are a great way to protect your feet from crush injuries or other harm on an oil rig. In the winter, you need to make sure these boots are not only waterproof but properly insulated. Otherwise, you could run the risk of trench foot or frostbite.
Who Is Responsible for Providing Cold-Weather Gear?
Generally speaking, employers are not required to provide work clothing for their employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act does state, however, that employers are required to pay for or provide any personal clothing and equipment that must comply with federal workplace safety standards. It stands to reason, therefore, that oil and gas employers must provide oil rig workers with the clothing and equipment they need to stay safe and warm in the winter, or they can reimburse workers who purchase such materials.
According to OSHA, “Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, employers have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards, including winter weather-related hazards, which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to them.”
In addition to providing proper cold-weather gear, employers can protect oil rig workers from winter weather by shortening the duration of outdoor work, having employees work in pairs to watch for signs of cold stress, taking more frequent breaks indoors, providing proper nutrition and hydration, and encouraging workers to drink warm liquids. Employers must also train oil rig workers on overall cold-weather safety.
When Oil Rig Workers Suffer Cold-Related Harm
Too often, companies cut corners to save money. When this happens, workers can be seriously injured or may lose their lives. Not only do oil rig owners and operators have an obligation to winterize facilities, but they should provide cold-weather gear and proper training to help their workers stay safe. Delaying winterization, providing sub-standard protective gear, and pressuring oil rig crews to work in heavy weather are all examples of situations that can unnecessarily endanger workers.