Researchers from the Radboud University Medical Center in The Netherlands have trialed cooling vests, originally designed for elite athletes, in nursing staff who have to put in long shifts in COVID-19 wards wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). While essential, the protective equipment can lead to significant discomfort in the form of heat stress. The majority of staff reported feeling more comfortable while wearing the vest, and it is now part of the standard equipment at the Radboud University Medical Center.
PPE is crucial in keeping healthcare staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that it’s fun to wear. The equipment can be uncomfortable and cumbersome, and can lead to significant heat issues when worn for a long time. The researchers behind the current study report that the temperatures beneath the suits of healthcare staff can reach up to 36 degrees Celsius (97 F) during a shift in which PPE was worn for three hours straight.
Improving comfort for staff will make their work more pleasant and may help them to work more effectively. These issues inspired the researchers to adapt a cooling vest intended for use in elite athletes at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.
“The elite-athlete cooling vests were not immediately suitable for this use because they were designed to cool aggressively before or after physical exertion,” said Thijs Eijsvogels, a researcher involved in the study, in an announcement. “COVID care involves long-term use in which the vests are worn during the health care activities. The cooling power of the modified vest is lower, but it works longer.”
The vests were stored in a refrigerator prior to use, and were made available to staff on the ward in a mobile cooler. They consist of 36 pockets containing a phase change material in a thermoplastic polyurethane shell. The staff wore the vests over their uniform, but underneath their PPE.
In a trial with 17 nurses, staff reported that they felt more comfortable while wearing the vests, although their effect on core body temperature was minimal. Vest-wearing nurses had lower heart rates while working, suggesting that they may have been more relaxed.
“Without a cooling vest, almost 90% of the nurses experienced discomfort and warmth,” said Yannick de Korte, another researcher involved in the study. “With a cooling vest, only 20-30% of the participants experienced this. They therefore perceived the conditions under which they have to do their work as more pleasant and comfortable. Virtually everyone said: ‘With a cooling vest, I can work like I normally do without protective clothing’.”
You can see more of the vest in this Dutch language video:
Study in Temperature: Cooling vests alleviate perceptual heat strain perceived by COVID-19 nurses