Employers in the UK are required by law to protect their employees from exposure to chemical, physical and biological agents which may harm their health.
Various pieces of legislation place these duties on the employer, including the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (as amended) 2002 and The Control of Noise at Work Regulations, 2005.
Examples of materials and agents which an employee may encounter routinely at work and exposure to which may potentially damage their health include:
- Chemicals and products containing chemicals
- Dusts, mists, gases, fumes, and vapours
- Biological agents such as legionella and those used in laboratories
To ensure their employees’ health is protected, the employer is required to understand the hazards and assess the risks of materials including but not limited to those described above to which employees may be exposed whilst at work, and to document this in risk assessments. The employer must then seek to prevent exposure to these hazards, or where this is not reasonably practicable, to suitably control exposure to them.
Exposure should be controlled using the ‘Hierarchy of Control’, concentrating on engineering and administrative measures.
Use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as the sole control measure is not appropriate. This is because it addresses the hazard indirectly rather than at source and it has the most potential failure points, most notably perhaps, the user’s failure to wear or wear properly.
However, it is well recognised that PPE has an important part to play in reducing employee exposure to health-harming agents when it is used as part of a suite of measures to effect the necessary ‘adequate control’ which HSE judge to be when the risk of harm is ‘as low as is reasonably practicable’.
What is PPE?
PPE is defined in the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 as ‘all equipment (including clothing affording protection against the weather) which is intended to be worn or held by a person at work and which protects the person against one or more risks to that person’s health or safety, and any addition or accessory designed to meet that objective’.
Using the right type of PPE
When your risk assessment shows you should provide PPE, you need to make sure you choose the right type to protect different parts of the body. These include:
- Hazards to the eyes include chemical or metal splash, dust, projectiles, gas and vapour or radiation.
- PPE options include safety spectacles, goggles, face screens, face shields and visors.
- The PPE you choose should have the right combination of eye protection against various hazards of impact, dust, splash, or molten metal. It should also be appropriate for the task and fit the user properly.
Head and neck
- Hazards to the head and neck include falling objects, projectiles, impact, hair getting tangled in machinery, chemical drips or splash, climate, or extreme temperatures.
- PPE options include safety helmets, bump caps and hairnets. Some safety helmets incorporate or can be fitted with specially designed eye or hearing protection.
- Neck protection may be needed in some circumstances – for example during welding.
“the PPE you choose should be appropriate for the task and fit the user properly”
- Hazards to the ears from noise come from a combination of sound level and duration of exposure. Very high-level sounds are a hazard even with short duration.
- PPE options include earplugs, earmuffs (also called ear defenders) or semi-insert/canal caps.
- Provide the right hearing protectors for the type of work, and the wearer, and make sure workers know how to fit them. Choose protectors that reduce noise to an acceptable level, while allowing for safety and communication.
Hands and arms
- Hazards to the hands and arms include abrasion, temperature, cuts, impact, chemicals, electric shock, radiation, biological agents, or prolonged immersion in water.
- PPE options are gloves (including gloves with a cuff), gauntlets and sleeving that covers part or all the arms.
- Avoid gloves when operating machines such as bench drills where they might get caught.
- Barrier creams are not a substitute for proper PPE. Using separate cotton inner gloves can help prevent skin problems from wearing gloves for long periods. Choose gloves made from materials that are impervious to the hazards being worked with.
Feet and legs
- Hazards to the feet and legs include temperature, electrostatic build-up, slipping, cuts, falling objects, heavy loads, metal, and chemical splash or being struck by a vehicle.
- PPE options include penetration-resistant safety boots and shoes with protective toecaps or specific footwear, for example foundry boots and chainsaw boots.
- Select appropriate footwear for the risks. It can have a variety of sole patterns and materials to help prevent slips in different conditions, including oil or chemical-resistant soles. It can also be anti-static, electrically conductive or thermally insulating.
- Hazards to the lungs include dusts, gases, and vapours.
- Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) options include respirators which rely on filtering contaminants from workplace air. These can be simple filtering facepieces and respirators or power-assisted respirators.
- Some types of RPE rely on an effective seal between the body of the respirator and the wearer’s skin. If the integrity of this is compromised – for example by facial hair – the level of protection the RPE affords the wearer will be decreased significantly. It is therefore important to ensure those who wear tight-fitting RPE are face-fit tested by a competent person.
- Some types of RPE give an independent supply of breathable air, for example fresh-air hose, compressed airline, and self-contained breathing apparatus. Such equipment is used in oxygen deficient atmospheres.
- Hazards to the whole body include heat, chemical or metal splash, spray from pressure leaks or spray guns, contaminated dust, impact, or penetration.
- PPE options include conventional or disposable overalls, boiler suits, aprons, and chemical suits. Where it is needed, choose material that is flame-retardant, anti-static, chain mail, chemically impermeable or high visibility.
Fall protection and drowning
- Personal fall-arrest systems such as harnesses and personal buoyancy aids such as life jackets are the last resort as they only mitigate the consequences and protect only the wearer.
- However, if they are used, it is imperative that they fit the wearer properly and are maintained correctly.
- Considerations during the selection of this type of equipment will include frequency of use, size/weight of the wearer, other PPE worn and additional work equipment such as tool belts worn on the person.
If in doubt, seek further advice from a specialist adviser. Choose products which are UKCA marked.
Select equipment that suits the worker – consider the size, fit, compatibility and weight of the PPE and the physical characteristics of the user. Modifying PPE to fit is not a suitable solution.
For some PPE, such as harnesses or lifejackets, choosing the right size is particularly critical to ensure they fit properly which they must do to protect against hazards.
PPE must be provided to workers free of charge.
If more than one item of PPE is worn at the same time, make sure they are compatible. For example, wearing safety glasses may disturb the seal of a respirator, causing air leaks.
Choose hard hats and ear defenders carefully to make sure they can be worn together and are both effective.
Information, instruction, and training
If PPE is provided, instruct and train people how to use it properly, include information on the checks they should perform before use, and how they should clean and store their PPE after use.
Tell them why PPE is needed, when to use it and what its limitations are.
PPE must be looked after and stored properly when not in use, for example in a dry, clean cupboard. If it is reusable, it must be cleaned and kept in good condition.
When planning for equipment maintenance, ensure the following is considered:
- Use the correct replacement parts and follow the manufacturer’s replacement schedule
- Keep a small stock of replacement PPE available for use if equipment fails or must be returned to manufacturer for maintenance etc.
- Know who is responsible for maintenance and how they should do this.
Some equipment maintenance can be done by workers themselves, such as replacing a filter in a respirator. More specialist equipment, such as a harness for working at height, may need to be sent back to the manufacturer if maintenance is required.
The effectiveness of some types of PPE, particularly clothing, will be reduced significantly if they are not kept clean. Hi-vis clothing must be cleaned regularly to ensure the reflective strips continue to be easily identifiable.
It is a good idea to keep a small supply of disposable coveralls – They are useful for dirty jobs where laundry costs are high, for example for visitors who need protective clothing.
Laundering of reusable protective equipment
It is the employer’s responsibility to arrange for suitable laundering of reusable protective clothing.
Employees must not take home their PPE to launder, as this could result in secondary exposure to hazardous materials for themselves as well as those sharing their home.
Monitor and review
Check regularly that PPE is used –if it isn’t, find out why.
Safety signs can be a useful reminder that PPE should be worn – many workplaces will often have signs at the entrance indicating what sort of PPE should be worn.
Similarly, photographs of what PPE is needed and how it should be worn are also useful, particularly where English may be a second language for some members of the workforce and/or visitors.
Take note of any changes in equipment, materials, and methods – you may need to update what you provide.
The law on the provision and supply of PPE
Provision of PPE
The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 place duties on employers to ensure that PPE is:
- Assessed properly before use to make sure it is fit for purpose
- Maintained and stored properly
- Provided with instructions on how to use it safely
- Used correctly by workers
Employers must ensure workers have sufficient information, instruction, and training on PPE use.
Duties regarding PPE were extended on 6 April 2022, when the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations, 2022 were introduced.
The types of duties and responsibilities on employers and employees under the 1992 Regulations remain unchanged with the 2022 legislation but are extended to include ‘limb (b)’ workers.
“if in doubt, seek further advice from a specialist adviser”
Definitions of limb (a) and limb (b) workers
In the UK, section 230(3) of the Employment Rights Act 1996’s definition of a worker has two ‘limbs’:
Limb (a) describes those with a contract of employment. This group are employees under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and are already in scope of 1992 Regulations.
Limb (b) describes workers who generally have a more casual employment relationship and work under a contract for service. This group was outwith the scope of the 1992 Regulations
The 2022 Regulations draw on this definition of worker and captures both employees and limb (b) workers:
‘“worker” means ‘an individual who has entered into or works under –
(a) a contract of employment; or
(b) any other contract, whether express or implied and (if it is express) whether oral or in writing, whereby the individual undertakes to do or perform personally any work or services for another party to the contract whose status is not by virtue of the contract that of a client or customer of any profession or business undertaking carried on by the individual;
and any references to a worker’s contract shall be construed accordingly.’
Therefore, where an employer has undertaken a risk assessment and determined that PPE is required, they must ensure that suitable PPE is provided to workers and that there is no difference between the way that it is provided to employees and limb b workers.
A limb (b) worker now has a duty to use the PPE in accordance with their training and instruction, and ensure it is returned to the storage area provided by their employer.
The supply of PPE
If you provide PPE to your workers, you should ensure it complies with product supply legislation.
EU Regulation 2016/425 on PPE (as incorporated into UK law) sets out the essential health and safety requirements that must be met before PPE products can be placed on the GB market.
The Personal Protective Equipment (Enforcement) Regulations 2018 provide a system for the enforcement of the 2016/425 Regulation and are enforced by HSE for PPE intended for workplace use in Great Britain.
Duties of employers
If you are an employer, you must choose products which are UKCA marked (or CE marked in specific circumstances). PPE should also have a Declaration of Conformity and instructions on how to use the item. Suppliers can advise you.
You must ensure that any PPE is only used in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you have concerns that PPE supplied for use at work does not comply with the product supply legislation, you can inform HSE by notifying them of the defective product.
Duties for those in the supply chain
If you are a manufacturer, authorised representative, importer, or distributor of PPE, you have duties under Regulation 2016/425 (as incorporated into UK law). These duties are more fully explained in guidance from the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) and will vary depending on your position in the supply chain.
For example, manufacturers will have more duties, with tighter restrictions, than distributors. However, all have an important role to play in ensuring that only compliant and safe PPE is placed on the market.
Why won’t they wear it?
Many workers appreciate the necessity of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) while at work. Sometimes though, and even if you have followed all the above steps to introduce your PPE management system, there may be some who don’t, and who won’t wear the PPE you have issued… But why is this?
Understanding the risk to health
A lot of occupational ill-health does not manifest itself until many years after exposure to hazardous substances has ceased. There are often no immediate effects, no ‘blood and guts’ during the work period, so the employee may not appreciate the risks to which they could be exposed if they fail to wear their PPE.
It only takes one arc flash or flying particle to change a worker’s life forever, yet many workers assume that since they’ve done similar work for years, they’re somehow immune to these hazards.
Uncomfortable or ill-fitting PPE – One size does not fit all
Having gone to the trouble of risk assessing your operations and identifying a need for PPE, merely handing out a ‘one-size-fits-all’ piece of equipment in the hope that it will be suitable for everyone may see your PPE programme fail.
If PPE is ill-fitting, uncomfortable, too hot or is incompatible with other PPE, interferes with communication or compromises safety (e.g. Prevents audible alarms being heard) it is most unlikely that it will be worn properly, or even worn at all.
Quality of PPE
Following the recent Coronavirus pandemic, most of us have a significantly greater awareness of the issues and dangers associated with fake and non-compliant PPE.
With on-going media coverage of these issues, it may be that employees are unsure about the quality of their PPE and if it will provide them with suitable protection.
Exemption on religious grounds
Section 11(1) of the Employment Act 1989 as amended by Section 6 of the Deregulation Act 2015 exempts turban-wearing Sikhs from any legal requirement to wear a safety helmet in a workplace, including a construction site. The exemption applies only to head protection and turban-wearing Sikhs should wear other required personal protective equipment. This exemption applies to any turban-wearing Sikh e.g. visitors, employees; there is no such exemption for Sikhs who choose not to wear a turban or for other religious groups.
What can you do?
Involve workers right from the start of the risk assessment process through to including them in the selection of several (suitable) models of each type of PPE which is required.
Allow workers to trial these different models of PPE, ensuring that user comfort and compatibility with both the task and other types of PPE which may be needed, as well as suitability and cost are considered too.
Equipment suppliers will often provide supplies of PPE free of charge or at a much-reduced price for the purposes of these trials.
Remember that if workers can choose the PPE that is most suitable for their own needs, they are far more likely to use it.
Make sure that employees are provided with lots of practical information on why they need to use any PPE provided for them at work, how to use it and care for it, and what to do if it breaks or becomes faulty.
Listen to any concerns your employees have with the PPE or its use and address them in a timely manner.
Focus on praising staff who wear their PPE – we all like to be thanked, and this positive reinforcement will encourage a self-policing ‘compliance culture’ where the proper use of the correct PPE is expected by all. Oh, and don’t forget to engage employees in finding solutions that will increasingly control hazards at source and reduce the need for PPE.