Working on arctic oil rigs and similar sites doesn't just mean putting on a jumper and a scarf. It’s arduous, exhausting and dangerous, and requires careful judgment at all times to deal with the hostile frozen environment. To make this a bit less hazardous, the Scandinavian research organization SINTEF is developing clothing equipped with sensors to monitor temperature and activity, with an eye on helping supervisors to determine when it's time for workers to stop work and return inside.
The Arctic is the most alien place for a human to be, outside of undersea or in outer space. It’s a place where tin rots and motor oil turns into tar. Frostbite is a major hazard that can cost limbs rather than a minor nip, and metal becomes dangerous to touch with bare hands. Working outdoors means a balancing act between aching cold and sweat-soaked underclothes that can easily turn to ice. The air that is not only cold, but dry and can burn the lungs. Sunlight coming off the snow and ice is so bright that it can literally blind a person.
Even if all these dangers can be avoided, working under arctic conditions is slow and hard. Workers tire quickly because calories are needed just to keep the body warm, and jobs that are easy in warmer climates become major undertakings. Fatigue is as dangerous as freezing, so it’s vital for workers to know when to stop.
“The average worker may be so determined to get the job done that his fingers become cold and lose their dexterity, with the result that screws are not fitted correctly, leading to increased risk level some time in the future. We may well have to use a sort of traffic-light system in such situations, in which green means ‘OK’, yellow means ‘take care’ and red indicates that ‘there is danger afoot’," said Øystein Wiggen, a physiologist and research scientist at SINTEF Health Research.
It’s a question of balancing the outside temperature, the temperature of the workers and the type of activity they’re carrying out. Usually, this requires supervisors to rely on a high degree of experience and judgment, with nothing but air temperature and wind measurements to go on. What SINTEF is working towards is a way of gathering a wider range of objective data.
“It’s true that there are individual variations in whether some people feel cold or find the temperature unpleasant. For example, we know that women often feel the cold before men do,” Wiggen said.
SINTEF’s approach is to develop clothing, specifically a jacket, with built-in sensors to measure outside temperature, body temperature and activity, and send back real-time readings that supervisors can use to determine when to knock off for the day.
“The development of this jacket is part of the ColdWear project, on which we have been working here at SINTEF since 2008. In this project we have performed tests in our climate chamber to obtain physiological data showing how extreme temperatures affect the performance of the human body,” said Wiggen.
At present, the sensor jacket only exists as a demonstration model – or rather, a demonstration sleeve with a sensor to measure hand temperature and humidity and outside temperature. “So far the measurements look promising. We can see that the sensors in the jacket and those we use for control measurement record approximately the same temperatures, even when the temperature in the environment fluctuates. We also see that the closer a sensor is to the body, the more stable the measurements become, which is natural, since the body regulates its own temperature,” said Wiggen.
The jacket also contains an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a digital compass to monitor activity – including strain caused by vibrations from using heavy machinery. “This enables us to monitor a worker’s body position and movement in great detail and we can easily see whether the person is stationary or active, as well as measuring temperature, humidity and perspiration,” said Senior Research Scientist Trine M. Seeberg.
One challenge for the jacket is making sure that the sensors make proper contact, yet won’t be damaged or interfere with movement. This is managed by designing the sensors so they don’t have to make direct contact with the skin, but rather, according to SINTEF, “see” the skin. Meanwhile, instead of wires, the sensors use conductive threads sewn into the clothes that can be bent and stretched in all directions. In addition, the jacket is designed to use Bluetooth Smart to send data to a PC or smartphone.