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Protecting workers in the African Oil and Gas industry (O&G) can be challenging


This is in part simply because O&G worksite activities are inherently hazardous. But in addition, the climate and environment of certain African regions add to these hazards. For PPE (personal protective equipment) to perform in this region, they must also be comfortable to wear in what are typically hot and sometimes humid conditions.

Since PPE is intended to cover 95 per cent of the body of any given O&G worker, it is important to carefully consider what PPE solution will best protect the worker while also keeping him comfortable in such an environment. This solution can only be determined, however, by first understanding what protection the PPE actually offers, and by knowing what protective features must be considered when selecting workwear or footwear.

Foot protection

PPE for the foot should offer protection for the wearer on several levels.

The first and most obvious is protection of the foot itself. This includes the toecap, puncture resistant sole, shielding upper, metatarsal protection and so on.

The next level that should be considered is whether the footwear provides protection beyond the feet. This is done through attributes like slip resistance and shock absorption to prevent back pain.

The comfort of the footwear also must be assessed. This comes in part from the construction of the boot, but comfort first begins with a proper fit. A worker can be harmed when his safety shoe or boot fits poorly, by being improperly sized or too narrow. To assure a proper fit, it is important to take the time to measure the foot.

Finally, international standards have been established to assess the performance of footwear on a wide range of different protective features. Footwear intended to serve as PPE, should meet ASTM F2413-05 or EN345 standards.

Selecting footwear

Perhaps nowhere in the world is the choice of footwear so important as in the O&G industry in Africa. Footwear here must perform under particularly tough conditions. They are subjected to chemicals, corrosive salt water and hot mud. Unless the footwear is constructed to specifically endure these conditions, it is likely that the soles of the footwear will rapidly decompose, and the upper and the sole of the footwear will tear apart.

Decisions regarding footwear selection must be made with an understanding of the construction and components of a boot, and the resistance they provide to the conditions in which they are used. For example, the compounds used in the making of the sole must be designed to withstand these extreme conditions; and the method of how the sole is attached to the upper must be considered.

Sole compounds

One phenomenon that is responsible for the loss of many boots in tropical and equatorial regions is hydrolysis (or polymer degradation). This condition occurs when heat combines with humidity to dangerously soften the outsole becomes extremely soft. For footwear that resists this condition use an outsole made from a polyether polyurethane and or nitrile rubber.  Both are excellent choices for climates where heat and humidity are a concern.

A large majority of footwear outsoles are made of polyester polyurethane in a single or dual density composition or thermal Plastic polyester based Polyurethane (TPU). These compounds are not ideal when they are stored in hot and humid conditions. The use of these outsole materials is not recommended in tropical and equatorial areas.

To protect footwear, it is always advised that it be stored it in a climate-controlled facility (between 21°C & 26°C) and with humidity of less than 50 per cent.

Footwear construction

Chemicals used in drilling fluids and other corrosive fluids such as diesel fuel can come between the sole and the upper, leading to outsole delamination.  To prevent this, a welt construction is advised. A boot with welt construction mechanically attaches the midsole via stitching it to the upper. The outsole can either be cemented with glue or direct attached using a chemical bond to the welt commonly called “direct attached to a welt”.

Another consideration in boot construction is the material used in the construction of the upper. In warm humid climates the lack of breathability in the upper material creates an uncomfortable environment for the foot. The warm moist environment created may lead to mycosis. To prevent this potential condition, the selection of upper material is crucial. Natural materials full-grain leather behaves much better under heat and humidity than PU-coating or split leathers. The full-grain leather offers a higher level of breathability and moisture management.

Selecting workwear for flame protection and comfort

Workers in the O&G industry today primarily wear clothing that is not flame resistant (non-FR), even though they are working in hazardous environments where flame resistant (FR) garments should be a necessity. This may be because many safety personnel are not as familiar with FR garments as the rest of the PPE in use in the industry.

FR garments are defined by the following standards: EN 531 (or EN ISO  11612) (Europe) and NFPA 2112 (USA). They are designed to self-extinguish after an external source of ignition is removed. As a result, FR garments limit the burn areas on the body and provide the wearer with the opportunity to run away from a flash fire (a rapidly moving flame lasting less than 3sec as per NFPA 2113), an electric arc (fatal at a 3m. range and defined by NFPA 70e annex K.3) or projections of molten splash.

There are two types of FR garments. Garments considered “primary FR” must be worn when exposure to flame is likely. “Secondary” FR garments should be worn when intermittent exposure to radiant heat, flash flames or molten splash is possible. Secondary FR garments are most commonly worn in the O&G industry.

If FR garments are not worn, even brief exposure to flame will very likely result in significant injuries or death due to the fact that non-FR clothing will ignite and keep burning after the exposure until it is consumed. It may also melt and drip on the skin.

Selecting FR fabrics

A number of FR fabrics are used in PPE garments today. They range from 100 per cent cotton with an FR treatment (also called FRC) to man-made fibers such as aramids.

Each fabric has pros and cons, and the selection of a fabric should be made only after considering the hazards, climate, and price-point of each fabric. (The fabric type makes up 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the cost of an FR garment.)

100 per cent FR treated cotton garments on average will weigh more than man-made fibers, and provide an acceptable level of protection. 100 per cent aramid-based garments offer a premium level of protection, but this often comes at the expense comfort.

The optimum solution for the African O&G industry is often in between these extremes. A blended fabric is recommended, which combines the comfort of cotton with the performance of an aramid-based garment.

Some additional points to remember to protect your workers from flame include:

  • Always wear cotton undergarments. This may be something as simple as a sweatshirt.
  • Do not allow polyester to be worn under or on top of an FR garment. It will likely melt, causing severe burning.
  • Carefully examine the construction of the garment. Are the stitching points solid enough? Are the components (zip and buttons) non-sparking? Do the reflective components of the garment comply with international standards? Do all components of the garment have FR-properties similar to the fabric?

These questions must be positively answered in the selection process of any FR workwear.

Workers in the African O&G industry can be protected and still be comfortable at the same time. Give careful consideration to the workwear and footwear chosen to ensure a safe and productive worksite.