Posted by: towmasters | April 11, 2009

Risk Assessment & Dressing For Success: Killer Cotton, Wild & Wooly, Or Polyester Leisure Suits.

Our jobs on the water are full of risks, great and small. We constantly must evaluate and make judgments about what the level of risk is for any given activity, what the consequences might be if things don’t go as planned, consider what measures we can take to eliminate or minimize those risks, and then act accordingly, adjusting all the while as circumstances dictate in our fluid and ever-changing work environment.

Last week I posted about some excellent new foul weather gear that has recently come on the market. A sharp reader correctly pointed out via a comment that modern synthetic fabrics can be susceptible to building up a charge of static electricity, which merits some concern for the explosion risk from a subsequent electrostatic discharge. Personally, unless your cargo is particularly volatile or otherwise dangerous (gasoline, naphtha, benzenecoal dust, grain dust, etc.), I’m not terribly worried about it. Except for tankermen regularly leaning over the tank tops the risk-level would generally be infinitessimally small. Even then, I’d be more worried about whether or not they were following procedure to make sure the gauging tape was properly grounded while they’re strapping the tanks. But good risk-management practices require that you must still consider all of the possible consequences, which in a worst case-scenario explosion could be enormous. Sometimes relatively low-risk hazards have stunningly terrible costs if your luck runs out and the associated high-consequence event occurs. Remember the leaky O-rings of the Space Shuttle Challenger? So here is some more information to consider when choosing what you wear while you work.  

When deciding on what work wear you should buy keep in mind the general tenets of the layering system, which consists of the base layer, the mid or insulation layer, and the outer or shell layer.

The Base Layer: cotton has long been known as a killer. Although very comfortable and breathable it very readily absorbs moisture (which is why it’s used for towels), is slow to dry, and loses all of its insulating capabilities when damp or wet, therefore making it hypothermia-inducing. Consequently, as a base layer in cool to cold weather, or in any survival situation, it should be avoided like the plague.  That leaves you with two other choices: natural wool or synthetics like polypropylene or polyester, and I will pick wool (specifically, Merino wool) every time. It costs more and may be somewhat less durable if the base layer is worn as outerwear, but it’s superior in every other way, especially concerning safety. It is static-resistant and is by far the preferred choice for all occupations where exposure to fire is a risk (read: all mariners). Bonus: if it does catch on fire it chars rather than liquifies, so it won’t melt into your skin and flesh. Beyond that, Merino wool is smooth and stretchy, has a broad temperature comfort range, insulates when wet and is stink-resistant. Light and ultra-lightweight varieties are available for summer use.

The Mid Layer: it is at the mid layer that I’ll start using synthetics. Polyester and polypropylene have the best warmth-to-weight ratio and, like wool, also insulate when wet. They also wick moisture well and dry very quickly. Although all of the synthetics can be static prone, in my experience it is usually the thick, fur-like polyester fleeces that are the biggest culprits in building up a potentially dangerous static charge. In any case, this is a problem primarily for tankermen because of their tank gauging duties. Tug crew members generally aren’t going to be in a position to worry about this, but if in doubt just stick with wool.

The Shell Layer: before the invention of the modern petrochemical-based foul weather gear that we’re all accustomed to, usually made of cotton or synthetic canvas laminated with PVC for waterfroofing (polyvinyl chloride, which is some seriously bad stuff: remember that toxic new shower curtain-stink?), mariners wore what were and sometimes still are called oilskins. Originally made of oil or paraffin wax-impregnated cotton canvas, they were state-of-the-art for their time. They still exist, because they still work, and the modern versions are more user-friendly than ever.

If after careful deliberation you’ve concluded that the wearing of synthetics is inadvisable because of your particular circumstances, MTVA-approved foul weather gear manufacturer Grundens just happens to make two items that may fit your needs. The highly water-resistant cotton Canvas Workwear Hooded Parka and the waxed cotton duck canvas PT Mackey Retro Work Shirt. I’ve personally worn the parka while doing tree work at home and can attest to its quality. Give them both a look. Filson, of Seattle, Wa., also is known for its logger-quality oil-finish coats and jackets. Their heavy-duty waxed-cotton tin cloth line is as tough as you’ll ever find. If wool is what you need for base, mid/insulation, or outer layers they’ve got that too, and many of their coats and jackets are designed to be paired with their zip-in wool vests or jackets (available in four weights) for insulation. Many people are unaware that in dry and windy to drizzly conditions a heavy sweater can be the best choice. Woolrich, of course, is also a place to look for all things wool. Smartwool, Patagonia, and Ibex are all known for their high-quality merino wool base layers.

None of these items are inexpensive and you shouldn’t expect to find them in your local Walmart. The prices of some of the items, in particular the merino wool base layers, may absolutely astound you. But they last and perform like they’re supposed to and there are no cheap or mid-priced alternatives that are anywhere near as good. As with many things, you get what you pay for. It all depends upon how much your personal safety and comfort on the job is worth to you.

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