LATEST NEWS O H & S
July 4, 2012
Intelligent clothing for warmer workers
Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk
The drive to find and develop oil fields in the far north, could well result in better cold-weather clothing for construction workers on jobsites farther south.
That could mean most of Canada, since researchers in Norway are concerned about any situation where people are working outside in sub-zero temperatures.
Working outside in the winter has always meant dealing with special problems.
There must be an awareness that tasks that are simple in warm weather become more difficult as the day becomes colder.
There must be places where workers can rest and warm up.
That has led Norway’s National Research Council to launch a project called ColdWear.
A quarter of Norway’s remaining oil and natural gas reserves lie beneath the country’s most northerly coastal areas. In some areas, the combination of cold and wind is so great that even the best winter clothing now available is inadequate.
That took researchers to the island of Melkoy, near Hammerfest, at the extreme northern tip of mainland Norway, where there is already an oil installation.
It’s about the latitude of Canada’s Beaufort Sea, where there is also a lot of interest in the oil believed to lie beneath it.
On Melkoy, the researchers recorded the body temperatures of workers and registered their heart rates.
They observed them as they worked and conducted interviews about their personal experiences with the cold.
Many people think it’s possible for workers to adapt to a cold climate, but that’s not true, said Hilde Færevik, a physiologist, who heads the research team.
Some of the workers were born and raised in nearby Hammerfest, but they turned out to be no more adapted to the biting cold than people from warmer spots.
Færevik noted that a lot is already known about the effects on the body, but until now, no one has studied the effects of extreme cold in real work situations.
The new studies show that working in extreme cold results in deterioration in concentration, alertness and the powers of perception, all of which happen when the body’s core temperature falls even slightly below its normal 37 C.
The Norwegian textile industry has been brought into the project with the idea of developing advanced materials for clothing.
They are also exploring ways to make garments “intelligent.”
For that, though, there needs to be some way to monitor the temperature of a worker’s hands remotely, and that doesn’t exist yet. So, researchers are looking at ways of integrating sensors into gloves or coat sleeves.
The sensors would be able, using wireless transmission, to notify a control room when a workers needs to be brought inside to warm up.
Intelligent clothing has been suggested before, Færevik said, but “high prices have prevented most items from ever leaving the laboratory.”
The workers on Melkoy, she said, “endure lower temperatures than can be considered ethically acceptable for work outside in the cold.”
The drive to find more oil, however, continues to grow, which likely means more work in harsher and harsher climates. That could render the cost of intelligent clothing irrelevant.
It would simply be part of the cost of doing business.
“Petroleum companies may actually have no choice,” Færevik said. “If they wish to conduct oil exploration so far to the north, work safety must be of the highest priority.”
Should the technology needed to make intelligent clothing develop as hoped, it would be only a matter of time before the idea spreads — not only to oil exploration in the Canadian North, but to other northern development work.
Northern construction has always brought a special set of problems. If intelligent clothing can help deal with one of those problems, everyone will benefit.
Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.
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