Fashioning safer garments to suit the oil industry

(Edmonton) High-waisted pants are good, but in neon orange, not so much. Turns out Alberta's oilpatch workers have fashion preferences, just like everybody else, even when it comes to wearing safety gear.

Collaborating with a handful of workers in oil refineries and in the field, University of Alberta design researcher Megan Strickfaden and graduate student Sihong Yu have managed to tweak and improve safety wear that protects against on-the-job hazards like steam and hot water burns, but is also more comfortable and functional.

"Design is important," said Strickfaden, an assistant professor of design studies and material culture in the U of A Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences. "A fabric can offer protection, but the way a garment is worn can either protect or not. Having the clothing correctly cover the most vulnerable areas-torso, neck, wrists and ankles-is essential."

Local manufacturers will likely adopt some of the design changes, said Strickfaden.

Yu, who is from China, was glad to tackle an out-of-the-box aspect of fashion culture. "In China it is more about ready-to-wear products, and this research is about saving lives, designed with an end-user in mind. It was a unique process of learning for me."

The project also puts the U of A at the forefront of community-level innovation, Strickfaden said.

"It highlights the fact that meaningful design is happening in Alberta and for Albertans."

Stepping into Yu's design along with some of his co-workers, Steve Beggs liked the improvements she'd made. "It is a very progressive garment." As the health and safety professional for Devon Canada Corporation, one of the companies supporting the research, Beggs and his team are excited to be involved in the U of A's proactive work.

"During the wear trials, my team felt extremely comfortable and confident when working with steam, and it is amazing that as an industry we can participate in something like this. The workers really felt they were part of something meaningful."

The research stems from a larger initiative based in the Protective Clothing and Equipment Research Facility in the U of A Department of Human Ecology. Industry had asked Strickfaden and her team to develop safety wear that not only met but also helped define Canadian standards for oil industry workers, particularly against steam and hot water burns, which, as uncommon injuries, haven't garnered much attention in safety wear. Yu's work is the latest to be unveiled.

Yu, who just finished her master's thesis on the project, gathered information from focus groups of manufacturers, safety supervisors and oil workers in the resource communities of Fort McMurray, Lac La Biche, Cold Lake and Bonnyville in Alberta, and in Turtleford, Saskatchewan, about the pros and cons of existing safety wear. Her work was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Imperial Oil Resources Ltd., Nexen Inc., Total E & P Canada, DuPont Canada Inc., Devon Canada Corporation, Davey Textile Solutions and Apparel Solutions International.

Yu went to the drawing board and the sewing machine to design a trouser and jacket set, and a local manufacturer produced the prototype. It was then tested by four workers in the Lac La Biche area. The men wore the suits for 14 consecutive days, 12 hours at a time over their regular coveralls, and performed six particular tasks that would need high-level protection.

Designing the thick, laminated garments was a challenge: they had to be durable for both sides of 30C, fit well, be easy to move in and offer high-level protection from steam and hot water burns. A tall order, but the prototype worked well, Yu said. "The workers thought it was quite comfortable and flexible, and they felt secure and protected."

Yu's improvements included a snug interface between gloves and jacket cuffs to protect wrists, higher collars and jackets with a more tailored fit.

"They liked the garment so much they kept it on even when they didn't need to wear it, which is a nice testament to the design," Strickfaden added.

After wearing their custom-made duds on the job, the workers weighed in with a thumbs-up for a high-waisted trouser that replaced the traditional bib overall-but a thumbs-down for the bright orange colour, which made them conspicuous among their blue-clad co-workers.

Their feedback will be used to make more changes to the test garments, with another round of field testing next summer as the research continues.