The Integumentary Argument

Why exactly are you wearing protective clothing?

by Phil La Duke

Share:

This article looks not just at the types of clothing to keep us safe from arc flash, welding, and electrical hazards, among others, but takes a moment to look in detail at the physiology of what we’re protecting – our skin.

The primary reason, although certainly not the only one, for wearing protective clothing is to protect your body’s integumentary system. But what is the integumentary system and why should you protect it? Well, I’ll give you a hint: it contains the body’s largest organ, and while it is only a few inches thick it covers your entire body. Give up? It is your skin, hair, nails, and endocrine glands.

According to Dr Tim Barclay, Senior Editor of Inner Body1: “The integumentary system is an organ system consisting of the skin, hair, nails, and exocrine glands. The skin is only a few millimetres thick yet is by far the largest organ in the body. The average person’s skin weighs 10 pounds and has a surface area of almost 20 square feet. Skin forms the body’s outer covering and forms a barrier to protect the body from chemicals, disease, UV light, and physical damage. Hair and nails extend from the skin to reinforce the skin and protect it from environmental damage. The exocrine glands of the integumentary system produce sweat, oil, and wax to cool, protect, and moisturise the skin’s surface.”

If you’re like me, you have probably believed that the purpose of skin is to keep your guts and organs from spilling out all over the floor, but, like me, you would be wrong.

“skin forms the body’s outer covering and forms a barrier to protect the body from chemicals, disease, UV light, and physical damage”

According to the BC Open Textbook, Anatomy and Physiology, by Rice University: “The skin and accessory structures perform a variety of essential functions, such as protecting the body from invasion by microorganisms, chemicals, and other environmental factors; preventing dehydration; acting as a sensory organ; modulating body temperature and electrolyte balance; and synthesizing vitamin D. The underlying hypodermis has important roles in storing fats, forming a ‘cushion’ over underlying structures, and providing insulation from cold temperatures.”2

And yet, despite the high importance of our skin and related organs, many of us take it for granted. We all know that the skin, hair, and nails play a key role in regulating our body temperature. Few of us are unaware of the dangers of UV rays on our skin and its role in melanoma and other forms of cancers and many people slather themselves in sun block every time they go outdoors.

Armour up

The authors of Anatomy and Physiology take things even further and warn against tattoos. According to them: “The word ‘armour’ evokes several images. You might think of a Roman centurion or a medieval knight in a suit of armour, yet the skin in its own way functions as a form of body armour. It provides a barrier between your vital, lifesustaining organs and the influence of outside elements that could potentially damage them.

For any form of armour, a breach in the protective barrier poses a danger. In the workplace we tend to consider accidental breaches, yet people often puncture the skin for aesthetics and medical necessity, too. Sharps injuries, impalings, having blood samples taken, and adorning the skin with piercings and tattoos all puncture our body’s first line of defence, with associated dangers including allergic reactions; skin infections; blood-borne diseases, such as tetanus, hepatitis C, and hepatitis D; and the growth of scar tissue. And of course, depending on the severity of the incident and whether infection is left to fester, death. Once having punctured or weakened the body’s natural first line of defence – whether through choice in your leisure time, or in a workplace incident – you’re an easy target for all manner of harmful germs, microbes and other infectious agents.

Many people damage their skin without realising it. Smoking, for example, has been shown to permanently damage your skin, and dehydration, or more accurately, lack of proper hydration plays a major part in skin that is damaged and that looks prematurely aged.

Protective clothing

The most common and effective way to protect your skin is to cover your skin using the most appropriate protective clothing. Here are some of the most effective ways of protecting your skin through the use of protective clothing.

Trousers

Your employer probably has a written policy requiring you to wear some sort of garment that covers the lower half of your body, but even if such a policy doesn’t exist it’s good policy to do so – especially when working outdoors. Yes, even if you are a professional lifeguard. Surfers for years would shed their wetsuits and put on loose-fitting trousers over their bathing trunks; if they can do it and still look cool and be comfortable then you can quit your whining about it being hot. The bottom of your trouser legs should be tucked into your socks to keep insects or other vermin from crawling up and biting you; take it from me.

Your employer probably has a written policy requiring you to wear some sort of garment that covers the lower half of your body, but even if such a policy doesn’t exist it’s good policy to do so – especially when working outdoors. Yes, even if you are a professional lifeguard. Surfers for years would shed their wetsuits and put on loose-fitting trousers over their bathing trunks; if they can do it and still look cool and be comfortable then you can quit your whining about it being hot. The bottom of your trouser legs should be tucked into your socks to keep insects or other vermin from crawling up and biting you; take it from me.

“I pulled down my trousers only to find an enormous spider scrambling out down my leg”

I was once providing safety consulting for a motion picture when I felt pain in my knee. I inspected the knee of my trousers for signs that I may have suffered a trauma but saw nothing. It was extremely hot, but given the localised nature of the pain I ruled out sunburn fairly quickly. As the pain continued, I went into the toilet, pulled down my trousers only to find an enormous spider scrambling out down my leg. I tried to capture said arachnid by gently picking it up with a piece of tissue. I didn’t know what kind of spider it was and feared it might be poisonous. Well it turns out I was about as gentle as Lenny from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and when I opened the tissue I found a dead wolf spider. I felt really bad; wolf spiders in general are afraid of humans and this one was apparently just trying to get my attention – the outcome for me could have been far worse.

Shirts

Shirts should always be tucked into your trousers, and light-coloured long-sleeve shirts are the best protection when you are working in an area where insects might be present, particularly ticks which stand out on light coloured clothing. Ticks and other stinging and biting insects often attack from above so long-sleeved shirts are essential and as with the legs of your trousers either tuck the ends of your gloves into your shirt sleeves or select gloves with tight fitting sleeves long enough to be worn over your shirt sleeves.

If you are in an area where biting or stinging insects are likely, be sure to have a colleague do a quick visual inspection of your clothing to ensure no insect is on your person. A quick look is all that is required; I am not saying you should groom each other like a group of bonobos, but a quick visual inspection is essential so that you don’t inadvertently transport the insect to your vehicle or office.

Gloves

Gloves as protective clothing come in many shapes and sizes and selecting the right type of glove is dependent on the type of protection you are seeking. A driving or golf glove, for example, is to prevent blisters from forming after repetitive motion, whereas cut resistant gloves are designed to protect against the skin becoming slashed or punctured.

Socks

Socks should always be worn. Socks protect against blistering from friction with your shoes, cover exposed skin and offer limited protection against UV radiation. Your socks should extend high enough up the leg to allow you to tuck your trouser leg into them for the reasons stated previously.

Hats

Hats protect your head and sometimes your face and neck from overexposure to the elements. The appropriate hat can shield you from the sun, keep you warm in cold weather, and protect you from insect bites. Even if your job requires you to wear a hard hat or bump cap, you should carry a cap with you and don it when you are not wearing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Scarves

Scarves aren’t just for winter wear. A scarf made of a light fabric worn while working out of doors can protect your neck from sunburn. Scarves have also long been used to protect from the inhalation of dust.

Special-use protective clothing

Certain tasks will require specifically designed protective clothing, and not to wax melodramatic, but the right protective clothing can be a matter of life and death.

General protective workwear

As detailed in the following sections, general protective workwear includes protective sleeves, aprons, bib overalls, coveralls, and jackets.

“not to wax melodramatic, but the right protective clothing can be a matter of life and death”

Sleeves

Protective sleeves are often used to add another layer of protection to your arm, typically the gap between a glove and a shirt sleeve, but also in specialised applications where a normal shirt sleeve would fail to protect your forearm from a cut, burn, laceration, exposure to a toxic chemical or some other hazard. Food processors are often required to wear protective vinyl sleeves to protect them from biological agents in raw meat.

Aprons

Just as sleeves are worn over other clothing to add another layer of protection against hazards, aprons are also often worn to protect against burns or chemical exposure.

Bib overalls

Bib overalls are a one-piece combination of trousers and an apron. While a long-sleeved shirt should still be worn underneath the bib overalls, this garment has some unexpected benefits. First, it negates the need to tuck in your shirt, and – if you are wearing a heavy tool belt there is no danger that the weight of the tool belt will pull your pants lower making it difficult to keep your shirt tucked in.

Coveralls

Like bib overalls, coveralls are designed to be worn over your clothes. They are especially useful when you are doing especially dirty work, because they tend to be made of a more rugged material that is less likely to retain the dirt and may even offer some resistance to tearing.

Jackets

We don’t often think of jackets as protective clothing, but they are one of the most ancient ways that humans have protected themselves against the elements. Jackets are designed to be worn to protect you from the elements and are generally taken off and stored when you come indoors.

Foot protection

Foot protection is a central part of protective clothing, and as with all protective clothing, and as outlined below, there are “special circumstances” protective footwear.

Protective shoes

Often called “steel-toed shoes” protective footwear can be either shoes or boots, and steel-toed or composite-toed. In either case, the primary purpose for protective shoes is to protect your feet and toes from trauma.

Toe guards

Protective toe guards are worn over your shoes in areas where foot protection is required. They are most frequently used to provide some clueless executive or other corporate interloper foot protection even though they knew when they left the gilded walls of headquarters that they would be expected to wear protective shoes. Some hold the opinion that most of these toe guards are deliberately made to look extremely ludicrous, to invite ridicule and mockery to those who wear them thus adding extra protection by reducing the duration of the visit.

Overshoes

Overshoes are typically worn to protect you from chemical exposure. Leather shoes often can become saturated with dangerous and toxic chemicals and overshoes again offer an extra layer of protection.

Hazardous environments

While it’s obviously important that we stay protected in any industry, there are certain environments that necessitate extra protection. A few examples of these are listed below.

High-visibility clothing

High visibility, or hi-vis clothing as it is often called helps protect you from being injured by making you more visible both in darkness and in light. The most common high visibility item of clothing is the hi-vis vest. The vest is worn over your shirt and is made of a highly reflective material with additional reflective material added to the exterior to increase the reflection of light. Even though high-visibility clothing can greatly reduce your chances of being struck by an industrial vehicle, wearing it does not obviate the absolute necessity of remaining situationally aware and taking reasonable care to avoid placing yourself in the line of fire.

Welding clothing

Perhaps the most widely recognised protective clothing is that which is worn by welders. Welders routinely face dangers from open flames, UV radiation, and heat stress. As such, they require the following protection:

  • Welding shield – While some welders prefer to wear welding goggles to protect their eyes, they should instead or in addition, wear a welding shield, an item of PPE that not only protects the welder’s eyes from UV radiation, but also the welder’s face. Additionally, a welding shield protects the welder’s face from burns from sparks
  • Welders cap – A welder’s cap protects the welder’s scalp from UV radiation, but also from burns to the hair or scalp
  • Leather apron – A leather apron will again provide an extra layer of protection from sparks that might otherwise find their way into the welder’s shirt, trousers, or gloves
  • Heat and flame resistant clothing – Obviously, when working around an open flame or a hot piece of metal the prudent individual will wear heat and flame resistant clothing. Heat and flame resistant clothing are not heat and flame proof, however. Heat and flame resistant clothing is evaluated to a specific rating by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard. The NFPA “is a global self-funded nonprofit organisation, established in 1896, devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. NFPA® 2112 provides minimum performance criteria and sets clear guidelines for minimum design, performance, certification requirements and test methods for Flame Resistant garments for use in areas at risk from flash fires, such as those where flammable gases or vapours, or combustible dusts might be present. The standard calls for flash fire testing to be conducted at three seconds with a pass/ fail rate of 50% total body burn under ASTM F1930 (Standard Test Method for Evaluation of Flame Resistant Clothing for Protection Against Flash Fire Simulations Using an Instrumented Manikin) testing protocols.”3 Fire resistant clothing must always be the outermost garment worn.

Arc flash and electrician’s clothing

One of the greatest threats to worker safety is Arc Flash. According to the NFPA arc flash is: “An explosive release of energy caused by an electrical arc. An arc flash results from either a phase to ground or a phase-to-phase fault caused by such occurrences as accidental contact with electrical systems, build up of conductive dust, corrosion, dropped tools, and improper work procedures. During an arc flash, the temperature can reach 19,430°C.”4 Just to put that into context, the surface of the sun is approximately 6,000°C.

Needless to say, exposure to an arc flash can result in serious burn injury and death. Every year, more than 2,000 people are admitted to burn centres with severe arc-flash burns.

Conclusion

All arc flash clothing is evaluated and given an arc flash rating. The higher the rating denotes the higher level of protection. An Arc Flash Rating is “(a) value of the energy necessary to pass through any given fabric to cause with 50% probability a second or third degree burn. This value is measured in calories/cm². The necessary Arc Rating for an article of clothing is determined by a Hazard/ Risk Assessment and the resulting HRC. Usually measured in terms of ATPV or EBT. Simple put the ARC rating determines the protective characteristics of the fabric. When the product is sold to protect workers from arcing faults, clothing manufacturer are required in indicate the ARC rating.”5

Obviously, it is important to protect our skin and protective clothing can help us do just that. It’s important to remember that many of these clothes should be worn together for maximum protection. Seek the advice of your supervisor or safety representative to be sure you are not only wearing the proper protective clothing, but also wearing it correctly.

References
1 www.innerbody.com/anatomy/integumentary
2 opentextbc.ca/anatomyandphysiology/chapter/ functions-of-the-integumentary-system/
3 Source: www.nfpa.org/About-NFPA
4 Source: NFPPA.org
5 www.nfpa.org

Author Details

author icon

Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is an internationally noted thought leader on worker safety, culture change, and organisational development. He is the author of the weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com, and is a frequent guest blogger to www.monsterTHINKING.com, www.monsterWORKING.com, and www.safetyrisk.au.com. La Duke has been named one of the 101 most influential people in safety globally, is an editorial advisor and contributor to numerous prestigious publications. In addition to his writing credits, La Duke is a highly sought after speaker and consultant on safety and organisational change topics. Author of I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business.

Popular Articles by Phil La Duke