What is PPE?
PPE is Personal Protective Equipment that is “worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical, or other workplace hazards”, according to OSHA. It's also usually high visibility, especially for offshore work. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has become aware of PPE, especially breathing masks and face shields to protect against airborne viruses. In the offshore industry (including energy and maritime) and other hazardous industries, there are many other types of PPE: gloves, eye protection, shoes, ear protection, head protection including hard hats, respirators, and different forms of vests and suits. We’re going to take a look at PPE for offshore workers and how it is specifically designed for harsh environments.
Offshore workers wearing PPE. Image from SafetySkills.
A lot of offshore PPE is reusable as long as it’s in good shape and has not been damaged. Reusable protective equipment must always be kept clean and in working order. Dirt in PPE equipment can create friction, causing premature wear and can impede the function of some equipment, putting lives at risk. For example, a clip that starts to rust could seize up unexpectedly, preventing a worker from anchoring to a safety point. Dirty equipment can also hide damage like tears and corrosion that could cause a failure if the item is continued to be used. Personal protective equipment should fit comfortably so that workers will wear it, but it also needs to provide a full range of motion and be the right size so it protects vital areas. If regulations and controls are not sufficient to protect workers, PPE is provided by employers along with training on when and how to use it, how to put it on, adjust, and remove it, limitations, and how to inspect and maintain it. These instructions can seem trivial, but training in proper use ensures equipment keeps people safe.
So why the focus on PPE? In short, it can be dangerous offshore! According to SafetySkills, “From 2003 to 2010, 823 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job—a fatality rate seven times greater than the rate for all U.S. industries.” Offshore workers can be exposed to flammable, corrosive, and otherwise toxic chemicals on a daily basis. Hydrogen sulfide gas and crystalline silica can cause illness and death. Fires are a danger when working with flammable materials as are explosions. Due to the height and layout of many offshore workplaces like multilevel rigs and wind turbines, falls are always a concern, especially since a fall could be onto a hard steel surface or into the ocean. While this might sound like a lot to deal with, these are all possibilities that can be mitigated with proper training and PPE.
Worker offshore. Image from Remote Health International.
Types of offshore PPE
Face, head and eye PPE is probably the most common type of PPE for most industries. With our brain, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and neck all in one area, it’s the best place to start with hazard protection. If there is a chance of flying particles, hazardous vapor or liquids, or even light radiation, OSHA requires that employers provide employees with eye protection. Safety glasses with side shields are a basic level of protection while goggles and face shields provide additional protection around the eyes or for the entire face. Goggles are especially important for liquids and vapors that can splash, spray, and mist, while face shields provide a different type of protection against chemicals and flying objects, but can’t be substituted for goggles as they don’t provide as much eye protection. Filtered shields like welder’s helmets protect the eyes from light and glare while protecting the entire face from sparks and flying particles. Hard hats provide protection from threats from above, and come in different ratings. Class C hard hats provide head protection but no electrical protection, so they aren’t usually seen offshore. Class G hard hats provide protection up to 2,200 volts and Class E up to 20,000 volts, while also providing impact and flying object protection.
Body PPE is protective equipment that covers the rest of the body from the neck to the toes. Flame resistant clothing is a common type of PPE that will not continue to burn, even after being exposed to flames. It also prevents the spread of flames to other areas. OSHA has many requirements for when FR clothing is needed, including dealing with hydrocarbons and almost anything to do with wells including drilling, retrieving fluids, or even capping wells. When using FR clothing, everyone should keep an eye out for heat stresses, as FR clothing can be heavy and hot.
Offshore worker taking readings. “Photo: curraheeshutter/iStockphoto”. Image from Safety and Health Magazine.
Gloves are another common type of protection and are quite specialized for different situations. Gloves need to provide a range of movement for fingers, wrists, and be light and thin enough to perform tasks. For example, a leather or canvas glove might provide protection for a welder, but not for someone exposed to chemicals that could seep through the glove and contact the skin. A nitrile or rubber glove provides more chemical protection but less protection against sparks and flying objects that could easily damage it. When crushing forces are involved, none of the above would be sufficient protection, and there are special gloves made for crushing forces, vibrations, and multiple hazards, according to SafetySkills.
Footwear is similar in that it needs to provide a certain range of motion, but also needs to be rated for the type of work being performed. Insulated rubber boots can provide protection against electrical shocks while leather leggings can be added to provide additional leg protection above the boots from sparks or objects. Even steel toe boots are made in different materials and rated for different hazards. If falling hazards are a big concern, boots will be designed with extra protection for the top of the foot, not just the toe, that will protect the foot from being crushed and sometimes even cause an object to slide off the foot instead of getting caught and pushing force downward.
Respiratory protection is the one everyone is now familiar with due to the pandemic. The medical masks we commonly see provide protection for doctors or people in public places, helping to prevent the inhalation of harmful particles. Respirators are devices that do a much better job of filtering out contaminants and require fitting and training on how to use and maintain them. Air-purifying respirators use cartridges that filter particles, vapors, gases, and other chemicals from the air. Many tight-fitting respirators are cartridge style and need a good seal against your face, either completely (covering the eyes), or just the nose and mouth. Loose-fitting respirators are a hood or helmet like the type you might see in a movie. In some cases where the air cannot be filtered, it can be provided with a tank or generator.
Worker climbing a ladder. Image from Rocky Mountain Industrial Supply.
Many in the energy, maritime, and offshore industries work at heights at some point in their career. Drilling rigs, wind turbines, ships and platforms all provide a risk for a fall. According to Rocky Mountain Industrial Supply, there are simple ABCs for fall prevention: anchor, body harness, and connector. The anchor is the point where a person is secured, that can support at least 5,000 pounds. This can be on a ladder, a floor, a wall, or on top of a wind turbine - anywhere a fall arrest system is needed. The body harness should be worn before leaving the ground and only removed once back on the ground. The connector is the device that connects the harness to the anchor point. Shock-absorbing lanyards are common; in the event of a fall they expand to absorb some of the energy before stopping the fall completely. A positioning lanyard is a fall restraint system that functions to prevent a fall by restraining movement to a small area. In some cases, both are required for complete safety.
Self-Retracting Lifelines. Image from Rocky Mountain Industrial Supply.
Falling into the water
In the event of a possible fall into the water, there are multiple safety measures available. Lifejackets are the most common, and can be buoyant like a simple foam emergency lifejacket or inflatable such as a more fitted jacket that might be worn for extended periods of time. Anti-exposure suits are for protection from the elements such as on rigs, wind farms, and for emergency rescue workers. Immersion suits are designed to reduce body heat loss in cold water.
Immersion suit in use. Image from Grand Ocean Marine.
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment for offshore workers involves a lot more than a simple face mask. Flame resistant gear, electrical shock resistant shoes, respiratory protection, fall protection, and life saving floatation and heat retention equipment are all necessary parts of working on the water. Offshore work can be dangerous, and there is equipment, regulation, and training in place to make it safer. This is just a general overview of some of the types of PPE and its uses. When working offshore, be sure to get proper training and follow all guidelines and regulations!
Happy Fun Fact Friday!