Seeking burn solutions

(Edmonton) Dave Fennell has a list of injuries at various work sites in North America, starting with the most recent ones in the summer of 2011. All have one thing in common: they are steam or hot-water burns, most of them serious. The very last incident on the page lists a fatality—a worker who died in 2009 after suffering hot-water burns to 80 per cent of his body.

As head safety advisor for Imperial Oil Resources, Fennell sees the list as a disturbing trend that is emerging in the entire oil and gas industry, a type of injury that has yet to be addressed.

“I don’t believe that our industry in general is fully aware of the problem,” said Fennell. “But when we started talking at safety forums about this type of injury, the feedback I was hearing was of similar incidents across the board.”

In an effort to stop serious injuries and save lives, a University of Alberta team of researchers is collaborating with Fennell and other industry partners to develop new fabrics that can be turned into protective work clothing, specially designed to deal with hot water and steam burns. The U of A’s Protective Clothing and Equipment and Research Facility has, over the past 25 years, already been working with resource industries to develop safety standards for clothing to protect against workplace hazards like flash fires, but new industrial technology brings with it new challenges, Fennell noted.

“Fifty years ago most of Alberta’s oil came from conventional sources—it flowed out of the ground. Today, most of the province’s production comes from heavy oil; oilsands in the Fort McMurray and Athabasca areas, and steam injection in the Cold Lake, Bonnyville and Lloydminster areas. This is the future of Alberta oil.”

Steam and hot water have become vital tools in accessing and thinning the heavy oil, which has the consistency of peanut butter. And with that technology, comes a type of burn injury for which little or no safety standards or personal protective equipment exist.

“It was one of those issues that, until we started talking about it as an industry, we didn’t realize we had a problem,” Fennell said. In fact, the U of A research team, led by professor emeritus Betty Crown, is working with Fennell and other industry sources to gather hard statistics on the number and types of steam and hot water injuries happening in the North American workplace.

Besides oil and gas workers, those in utilities, chemical and refinery workplaces are also at risk of water and steam burns. The issue also extends to workers in the laundry and food industries. “They work around hot water every day,” Fennell noted.

Crown, of theDepartment of Human Ecology, has teamed with Mark Ackerman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering to develop testing protocols for protective fabrics and with Megan Strickfaden, an assistant professor of human ecology, to explore workplace behaviours regarding safety clothing and to design more acceptable and effective garments.

“From a research perspective, we want to understand what it is that will make one fabric more protective than another,” Crown said. “We had no test device, so Mark (Ackerman) developed it and we were able to test a series of fabrics and develop specifications for fabrics and for designs of protective clothing.”

Crown expects those findings to soon be in front of a Canadian General Standards Board committee for review, and results could start to be seen in the workplace in a year or so.

The goal is to develop a combination garment that protects skin against both flash fire and steam or hot-water burns—“flash and splash” protection in Fennell’s words—yet breathes and is comfortable to wear. “It’s that third criterion that we haven’t been able to meet,” Fennell said, noting that when a garment is uncomfortable, workers tend to not wear it properly.

The U of A’s three-pronged approach to developing safety garments is what drew industry partners to the table for the project, Fennell added.

“The way the university pulled together different areas of expertise in fabric, test facilities and examining human behaviour, made the U of A the place to turn to. I am confident that their approach will come up with some answers to this issue.”

The research will continue to expand, as U of A human ecology graduate students begin the next phase of developing new protective fabrics and designs for different types of safety garments, Crown added.

The project is jointly funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Imperial Oil Resources, Nexen, Total E&P, DuPont Canada, Davey Textile Solutions and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Collaborative Research and Development Grant. Several fabric producers also contributed textiles to the project.