Rising of smart workwear

 By Nicholas Newman

Today the workwear and the equipment worn by energy workers are likely to be highly fashionable, protective and productive. Not surprising given the tough conditions and challenges that workers endure operating in the cold North Sea, fracking in the heat of a Texan summer or repairing power cables high above the ground. Part of the reason for the introduction of protective workwear and the wearing of smart gadgets such as the Fitbit etc., is the introduction in 1970s Europe, of health and safety regulations. In the Us as a result of similar regulations, for instance, it has required all technicians and service industry employees working in the vicinity of a rig to wear flame-resistant clothing, steel-toe boots, hard hats, personal gas monitor and safety glasses. Today, the apparel of workers will relate not only to their particular activity but also the workplace environment. We are also seeing the introduction of smart clothing, enabling the monitoring of the condition of staff. Fitting-out employees with the correct protective equipment to safeguard them from danger and the elements is now regarded as a worthwhile cost since it is also good for staff morale. Increasingly we are seeing the fitting out of staff with smart gadgets such as watches, phones and tablets that are being used by companies to monitor the health and condition of their staff, in part to prevent accidents, but also to reduce corporate insurance costs. As a result, the arrival of smarter protective equipment and new wearable gadgets is making life safer and more productive for energy workers…

Whatever the job, the clothing and personal equipment worn by energy-industry workers in the field has become increasingly sophisticated, both in its functional technology and even in its fashion. The technology of workwear and personal equipment for today’s oil, gas and electricity workers has to cope with extreme conditions, ranging from the icy waters of the North Sea and ultra-deep waters off West Africa, to the heat of a Texan summer, the permafrost of Siberia and the prevailing high winds, ice and sandstorms in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field and the wind farms of Mongolia.

Concern for the safety and security of upstream employees clothing has always been there, but a turning point came in the 1970s with the introduction in Europe, and then in the US, of modern health and safety regulations. This has been aided by technological developments in fabrics and, more recently, by application of “Internet of Things” (IoT) technology. For example, since 2010, America’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has required all technicians and service industry employees working in the vicinity of a rig to wear flame-resistant clothing, steel-toe boots, hard hats, personal gas monitor and safety glasses.

On the market today, there is specialized functional apparel related to specific activities and diverse environments. For example, cold or icy working conditions require ultra-warm apparel, including jackets, scarves and gloves as well as thermal boots. Fitting-out employees with the correct protective equipment to safeguard them from danger and the elements, as well as to ensure comfort, is now regarded as a necessary but also worthwhile business cost. Adopting clothing with intelligent capabilities combining new materials, sensing and computing capabilities is the next step forward. Wearable technology awaits widespread adoption in the industry.

Wearable intelligence in energy

Western designers of oil industry workwear adhere to the prevailing regulations and standards governing the composition, method of manufacture and safety requirements mandated by government in America and Europe. These are backed up by industry requirements. As Mark Saner, Workrite Uniform Technical Manager, explains: “manufacturers are tasked with developing products that not only meet or exceed the requirements of industry regulations, but also do so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice usability, comfort, cost or practicality.”

A case in point is a new range of smart clothing, known as ColdWear, developed by Norwegian research organization SINTEF. ColdWear is a pioneering development suitable for the ultra-cold oil fields such as Alaska, the North Sea and Siberia. It is a fabric range integrated with sensors, which is made up into a jacket for use by arctic oil workers, and designed to monitor their temperature, humidity and perspiration as well as their exact location and direction of travel. In addition, the sensors also measure and monitor the external temperatures and humidity. Such detailed real-time information on workers’ body condition allow supervisors to not only monitor their health but also guide decisions on when it is time to end work for the day. A surprising feature of this technological wizardry is that the jackets can be laundered!

The introduction of lighter “multi-hazard protection” fabrics sits alongside a trend towards smart workwear and clothing specially adapted to specific work activities and conditions. In general, Mark Saner, Workrite Uniform Technical Manager, suggests that oil and gas drilling workers are looking for lighter-weight, more comfortable flame-resistant (FR) garments that also look great and meet the industry standards.” For instance, in West Texas shale plays, where summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees plus, the major fear is the present danger of flash fires and heat stress. Such conditions require lighter-weight flame retardant clothing.

Manufacturers are rising to the challenge. For example, Carhartt has just launched a new line of products it calls FR Force, which includes 100 percent cotton knit T-shirts that are not only lighter weight but also meet the US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 2112 flame retardant standard. In the power sector, for example, this means fabrics designed to protect against multiple industrial threats like electric arc, flash fire, and even molten metal. However, providing complete protection against fire — one of the most feared hazards of working in the oil and gas industry — has not yet been mastered. “I know of numerous incidents with severe burn injuries and resultant fatalities in which we later determined, if the workers had worn no clothing [at all], their injuries would have been less severe, and there would not have been any fatalities,” says Peter Clark Of Apparel Solutions International, Inc.

There is also a distinct trend towards developing multi-functional fabrics featuring durability and resistance to abrasions, tears and scuffs. For this, rather than pure cotton, a fabric containing antistatic fibers to prevent static building up and sparking a fire plus 10 per cent nylon for durability is used. Norway’s Wenaas and America’s Cordura clothing brand ranges embody flame retardency, antistatic properties, high visibility and chemical resistance. Therefore, any procurement officer in a company such as Transocean, a major rig owner, could choose from a range of highly functional clothing, which is anti-stat protected, inherently flame retardant, with high visibility, and acts as a barrier to chemical spills, while meeting all the current EU and US health and safety standards.

The importance of health sensors
The importance of working at a high altitude with protection

Since 2013, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, British Health and Safety Executive and Canadian Centre have agreed a series of new standards for Occupational Health and Safety and compliance with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the world’s largest developer of voluntary international standards. Standardization of clothing and equipment, for what is essentially a global industry, is not only good for manufacturers, but also for the energy sector’s procurement professionals, since a global or regional accepted standard helps selection and adherence to health and safety regulations.

Similar regulations have been applied to workers in the power sector. For instance, the linemen and women that maintain power lines for the power distribution grid or electric trains, now have to wear Flash Resistant clothing. Hugh Hoagland, president of and, a top international expert in protective clothing says, “twenty years ago, the standards were far different. When an arc flash or electrical shock accident happened, a worker only had about a 60 percent chance of survival. Today, when protective work wear is provided, used and worn correctly, that survival rate can be as high as 95 percent, which is due, in part, to years of research and rigorous testing procedures that are the hallmarks of reliable manufacturers– as well as innovative apparel design.”

Nevertheless, hi-tech performance is not enough for some. Europe’s oil and gas workers are being offered “image wear,” heavily marketed designer branded clothing such as Helly Hansen or Dickies, especially designed for oil and gas workers. This trend has now moved across the Atlantic. “We are now seeing the US catch up with Europe in adopting image wear in the work wear market,” says Tim Anson, European Business Manager, Cordura Brand.

Frost and Sullivan predicted a rise in US protective workwear sales from $1.5 billion in 2011 to around $2.3 billion by 2017 based largely on expansion in America’s shale oil and gas industry. A similar trend is seen in the global market. As Tim Anson observes, “globally, the workwear market is growing by about 10 to 11 percent a year.” Whether this rate of growth will continue is questionable given the collapse in oil and gas prices from around $110 a barrel in June 2014 to below $30 a barrel in mid-January 2016 and announced capital spending cuts already exceeding $220 billion alongside heavy job losses. Perhaps growth in the power sector in Africa and India will maintain demand for protective clothing.

The importance of a smart jacket

Beyond protective clothing

According to management consultants Price Waterhouse Cooper, wearable technologies will become the next mega trend in the workplace. Already Apple, Fitbit, Samsung etc., are entering the corporate wellness and productivity markets. The oil giant, BP, has already distributed more than 24,500 Fitbit fitness trackers to its entire staff in its North American business, including those working in oil refineries and on oil rigs in 2015 as part of a program to cut its staff insurance costs. The wearable bands or clip-on devices monitor employee’s personal activity levels, calorie intake and sleep patterns. No doubt, the scheme’s popularity is partly because activity points earn staff discounts on their health insurance premiums. As Chris Brauer, Director of Innovation at Goldsmiths, University of London explains, “underwriters are more trusting of these devices than the self-reporting of employees.”

More technologically sophisticated and industry-specific are recently introduced smart glasses, which improve communications between control staff and on-site workers. Technology companies such as Lenovo, Meta Pro, Epsom and Google have recently launched such devices. Companies such as FMC Technologies, Saudi Aramco, Schlumberger and Sullivan Solar Power are already issuing smart glasses and tablet devices based on Wearable Intelligence technologies to provide on-site staff with key information such as data, schematics, maps, guidelines or instructions as needed. The Wi-Fi-connected optic display is activated by speaking, tilting one’s head or touching the device. Even more remarkable, smart glasses facilitate advanced, immersive and remote collaboration, including virtual over-the-shoulder coaching, thereby boosting on-the-job training. In practice with smart glasses, a worker can have ready access to interactive equipment manuals while repairing an oil rig or bridge cable or receive specific directives such as emergency procedures as and when necessary. Moreover, all of this is hands free. “It’s information at your fingertips, that’s the whole point to this”, says the roustabout in Wearable Intelligence You Tube ad.

The adoption of internet-connected gadgets such as smart glasses and Fitbits by energy industry field workers reflects the growing technological complexity of work and the employer’s demand for high performance. Smart or intelligent clothing and smart gadgets are the new medium for monitoring, reporting and training, and are of benefit to both worker and employer. In addition, they are integral to employers’ ongoing efforts to improve productivity and safety in the workplace, whether the employee is using devices to install a marine drilling riser on the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico or operating drones to carry equipment up to linesmen atop a power pylon in the Scottish mountains.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.