Dave Fennell embarked on a decade-plus long journey to help protect workers from steam and hot fluid injuries after one of his employees, Ron, who sustained injuries in a steam-related accident, asked “why did this happen to me?”. “Ron did exactly what I said about wearing protective clothing.” But while changing a filter on a hot water system in 2005, the valve gave way, and Ron was sprayed with condensed steam. He was hospitalized for 30 days and off work for painful rehabilitation for five months. Ron was left with extensive scars on his torso and arms.
That was in stark comparison to an employee at a different site who was caught for seven seconds in the middle of a major flash fire. With only minor burns on his neck and wrists, he had to spend only one night in hospital before returning to work.
“In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we made great progress and mastered the problem for flame-resistant clothing,” says Fennell, who now has his own company after working for Imperial Oil for 34 years, 29 of them in the safety area.
“We now need to protect workers from steam and hot fluids.”
After Ron’s accident, Fennell took on the issue as a campaign, wanting protective clothing to meet three goals:
- Flame resistance,
- Steam and hot fluid resistance, and
- Comfortable to wear (or else workers won’t consistently use it.)
Since the development of flame-resistant clothing, more workers are now injured from steam and hot fluids than fire. Industry operations have changed as well. In Alberta, where oil and gas is a big industry and there’s greater heavy oil development, a lot of hot water is used in the extraction process. Workers face four times the exposure to injuries from steam over fire, says Fennell.
At first, workwear manufacturers didn’t see a way to develop clothing that met all three goals, saying you could only have two of the three.
Fennell says his first breakthrough in building momentum around the need for all three came when he spoke at the Davey Seminar: Protective Clothing Systems for Safety, in November 2008.
Attending the conference were Dr. Betty Crown and some of her students in the University of Alberta’s textile program in the Department of Human Ecology.
Crown was interested in the science behind the project and how to properly test protective clothing for steam and hot fluids protection. However, funding would be required to conduct this research.
In May 2009, Fennell spoke to close to 1,000 people at the Petroleum Safety Conference. Just eight days before that conference, there was an accident with MobilExxon at a refinery in California.
Fennell got tears in his eyes when he told the crowd about how — as workers removed a drumhead — an operator 25-feet away was struck by a blast of boiling water and steam, getting second- and third-degree burns to 85 per cent of his body. The man died 18 days after the accident in a hospital burn unit.
Fennell’s emotion in telling the story carried over to the crowd, and several manufacturers agreed to start developing fabric for testing at the University of Alberta laboratory.
Unfortunately, there were no guidelines around how perform standardized testing for protection against steam and hot fluids.
Dan King, a partner at Davey Textile Solutions Inc that produces reflective trim for workwear, offered to help.
“I could see the need to create a standard concept of how to deal with this problem.”
In 2010 King chaired what was called the Steam Committee, with Fennell, Crown and industry members. This committee obtained a NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council) grant and some industry backing for a University of Alberta team to research and test steam, workplace behaviours and safety clothing to be able to design more acceptable and effective fabrics and garments.
“We had a lot to learn,” says Crown, professor emeritus at the university.
Crown and her students went out into the field, examining facility operations to start their research.
“We followed workers to see how steam is a problem and under what conditions they are exposed to steam. We also looked at what they were wearing, which was really giant rain suits.”
Then the university team had to create a test method that was as severe as what workers are exposed to in the field.
Mark Ackerman from the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering developed a testing device that shoots out a burst of steam at fabrics. What became immediately evident was that normal coveralls saturated in water added to the burn injury. The protective clothing that most workers were being told to wear was making burns worse.
Marty Mudryk, at the time manager of environmental health and safety for Suncor In Situ Resources, was one of the industry representatives on the project.
“In the drilling business when winter freeze-up comes, we use a lot of hot fluids and steam. We were getting injuries all the time,” says Mudryk.
“The focus was on FR (flame-resistant) protection and not the hazards you’re exposed to with hot fluids and steam.”
Suncor’s safety-first attitude led to the learning and sharing with the University of Alberta team and its contractors.
“Knowledge and working together is how we make the industry safer,” says Mudryk, who now works with Enbridge.
“I’m passionate about it and proud of the work we did together.”
In 2013, Fennell was asked to update industry and manufacturers at the Davey Seminar: Protective Clothing Systems for Safety. They had the research, but little was being done for awareness of the issue and in development of new protective clothing that met all three of their goals. After that presentation, DuPont, Gore-tex, Westex and NASCO all started to work on solutions that would meet the goals of being comfortable and resistant to both flame and hot fluid exposures.
By 2015, the companies came up with various solutions that met the goals, and Fennell began field testing these solutions at Imperial’s oil sands site. All of them passed.
These solutions are continually being refined, but they are now available for industrial workwear, and companies have a choice of products and manufacturers.
The next step was to develop and update safety standards.
“That was absolutely critical. It wouldn’t mean anything if we did all this research and we didn’t have a standard at the end,” says Fennell.
King was nominated to chair the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) 155.20, Workwear for Protection Against Hydrocarbon Flash Fire and Optionally Steam and Hot Fluids, in 2015 to ensure national guidelines were in place. This standard was released December 2017.
“This is the first step to creating an education program,” says King. In the coming years, he expects more and more companies will be aware of the issue, and the use of workwear that protects against both flame and hot fluid exposures will become the norm.
“It’s been an emotional but very technical journey,” says Fennell.
Mudryk agrees that there is still a need for education, research and product development.
“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still work to be done.”
Now that there’s a national standard in place and some protective workwear available, Fennell’s goal is to work on awareness of hot fluid injuries.
“There are still a lot of people who don’t know it’s an issue.”
Barb Wilkinson is a freelance writer and editor based in Edmonton