As human beings, it always amazes me how incredibly resilient we can be, despite adverse circumstances. All too often, a preventable incident occurs in the workplace, resulting in our colleagues suffering from catastrophic injuries. What blows my mind, however, is the ability of some people to shrug off these injuries and get on with their lives. They can be a great source of inspiration to us all, and remind us that life really is not all that bad.

Take Mike Rousselle as an aweinspiring example. Mike was very seriously injured in an electrical incident at his workplace, resulting in the total loss of one arm, and one leg. Many people would never have recovered from such horrific injuries, but not only did Mike recover physically and mentally, he was actually able to return to his workplace as a full-time employee. He even continues to do Martial Arts, a hobby he enjoyed before his life-changing incident. This speaks volumes not only about Mike’s own fortitude and character, but also shows how caring his employer was with regards to his wellbeing, not only during the incident, but afterwards also.

I would certainly recommend you all see the video, which I have linked here:

So, what do Mike and his amazing story have to do with today’s article? Well as I’ve already mentioned, members of the workforce like Mike suffer from some pretty terrible injuries all too often. Whilst we often think of ourselves as infallible and invulnerable, we human beings – much like the Greek Hero of the Trojan War, Achilles had his heel – do have one major weakness: our head.

Protecting the supercomputer

The head houses our hyper-fast, incredibly complex supercomputer, the brain. It also serves as the location for several other vital pieces of “equipment and functions”. Our ability to see through the eyes; the imperative functions of breathing and smell, through the nose; ingestion of fuel (in the form of food and drink) and communication through our mouths; and being able to detect sounds with our ears. Whilst I would not wish it upon anyone, Mike has been able to go back to a somewhat “normal” life, despite his catastrophic injuries. Someone suffering a head injury, however, is usually not so fortunate.

Indeed, head injuries are often instantly fatal, the only positive being in those instances that we would have to hope the victim does not even have time to register that they are about to die. Some small comfort for those who were punished for crimes by beheading in medieval times, though some historians and other experts regularly dispute whether the brain actually still functioned for a time afterward. A cheery thought, indeed.

For those who do survive major head injury, whilst advances in modern science and medicine allow us to be able to remedy some issues, such as partial or total loss of hearing through the fitting of hearing aids, major brain damage can permanently alter victims lives, to a point where they literally cannot do anything without help and assistance from other people. Indeed, the injury could be so traumatic that the victim is not even aware of what is going on, and just… exists. They may need permanent aroundthe-clock care, which may require specialist treatment and carers, and would certainly cost large amounts of money. If the victim were the only source of income in a household (as is the case in many parts of the world), how would their families pay for this care, and all other expenses such as food and keeping the power on? Of course, the best thing to do would be to not allow this kind
of scenario to happen in the first place. Unfortunately, how the head is harmed, and the amount of harm caused, can vary dramatically just like in any other incident in the workplace. So let us discuss some of the things we can do, starting today, to protect our workers’ heads.

Risk assessment

The first thing to do would be to conduct a thorough risk assessment, as with any other safety scenario. This will provide us with the key information we need regarding our head protection requirements, including giving us information on the hazards that exist in our workplace, who may be harmed, and how that harm may occur. We can then look at what we are already doing by looking at the current control measures we have in place,
before we can then decide upon what else we could do, by introducing new ones. For example, when we talk about head protection, most people would automatically think of that one item you see on almost any worksite around the world, the “hard hat” or safety helmet. These are great for limiting the injury caused by someone accidentally banging their head against something, but would be utterly useless if a crane drops five tons of steel on to a worker’s head.

Indeed, some companies have often shown experiments as part of inductions and safety campaigns, using fruit in place of human volunteers, where a simple bolt is dropped from a certain height, generating so much kinetic energy in the fall that the energy transfers through a hard hat to a watermelon, which then explodes. As a DROPS (Dropped Objects Prevention Scheme) approved Instructor, I can testify to this. Here is an example:

“some items of equipment may not be compatible with others, so there may need to be a prioritisation on which area to look after”

In a less extreme example, the trusty “hard hat” would offer some protection to the top of the worker’s head, but will do nothing to protect their ears, eyes, mouth, nose or face. So, what we may need to use depends on whether we are protecting a specific part of the head, or the whole head. Indeed, some items of equipment may not be compatible with others, so there may need to be a prioritisation on which area to look after (for example, some types of ear defenders would not be able to be worn with some hard hats, as the ear defender’s band would not wrap around the hard hat sufficiently to reach the ears). Of course, the best thing to do is to totally eliminate the hazards on site. As we would then have no risk of injury occurring, there would be no problem. However, this is in the “ideal world” and is not always possible. So, let us look at other equipment and methods of protection that we could use.

Drop zones and head protection

Objects falling onto people’s heads is a common occurrence in workplaces all around the world. So other than simply issuing people with hard hats, some simple things we could consider to complement their use, would be having protected areas in the workplace called “Drop Zones”. These are areas where we prevent all but essential workers from gaining access to them, so should an object fall, it lands on the floor or another surface, rather than a human being. These could be barriers erected around work areas involving the use of scaffolding, MEWPs (Mobile Elevated Working Platforms) or cranes. Safety nets could also be used to “catch” falling items, and workers might use tool belts and/or toolboxes for storing tools and equipment, particularly when working at height. Other loose items could also be secured in some way (ropes and netting for example). Soft materials such as rubber and foam would lessen an impact upon someone’s head, if they were to make contact with items sticking into walkways, sharp edges and so on. Bright coloured markings and/or tape could be used to highlights these objects/areas, giving people a chance to spot them, and therefore take appropriate actions such as using alternate routes, ducking below steelwork, and so on.

In warehouses, yards, construction sites and other workplaces where materials need to be stacked, the heights of the stacks should be kept to an absolute minimum. They should also be secured in some way, such as using correct stacking techniques, and being tied into floor surfaces. At least if these stacks do fall, they would then hopefully strike a person on the body, arm or leg, rather than the head. We have already spoken about hard hats before, but we could look at other alternatives, such as bump caps. You can even now buy baseball-cap style hats with composite linings. Depending upon legal requirements, the type of head protection we require may have to be a certain type for a certain task.

Other considerations could include the mandatory fitting and use of chin straps on head gear, to stop it falling off during use.

And eyes

With regards to protecting people’s eyes, there are various types of eyewear that could be used in a workplace setting. These include goggles and glasses of various kinds, masks and face-shields. Again, what we really need depends upon the specific hazards and types of harm we are trying to protect people against. Chemical googles would be perfect for protecting eyes against splashes of chemical or biological substances, but would be absolutely useless when trying to shield someone’s eyes from ultra-violet radiation produced by the sun, or the blinding flash produced by an arc-welder. Safety glasses are ideal protection against flying particles, sparks and shrapnel.

The photograph linked here shows a perfect example of some safety glasses protecting a worker’s eye from an exploding grinding disk:

“respirator filters are designed to stop specific sizes of contaminant from reaching us. If we use the wrong filter, the contaminant can still pass through”

Whilst this is great, these glasses may still struggle against a large impact from a heavy object, such as a hammer or pipe. Particular consideration must also be given to workers who may suffer from poor eyesight or other eye related ill-health conditions. This is because they may need to have special lenses made that match their “prescription” eyewear. You can purchase goggles, for example, that come with a special recess built into them. These are specifically for people who wear glasses, who place the glasses into the recess, so they can be protected without actually having to remove their glasses.

And ears

In terms of people’s ears, the main concern most people think about is protecting a person’s ability to hear. Often, however, workers can suffer physical trauma to their ears, including cuts, burst ear drums, or even having an ear partially torn, or ripped off their head altogether.
Soft, foam ear plugs are great for protecting people’s hearing, and will act as a barrier to prevent any foreign objects from entering the ear canal. However, they can also cause their own problems. Most (but not all) types of ear plugs are designed for “one-use” only. A common occurrence, however, is that these are reused over and over again. Ear infections and other ill-health can become an issue as contaminated or dirty ear plugs are used, or workers “share” them, as they do not have enough. Another common scenario is someone has forgotten their ear plugs for their particular shift, so they ask another co-worker to borrow their pair.

Unlike ear plugs sitting in the ear canal, ear defenders cover the whole ear, and therefore offer more protection to the entire ear. These are also good for workers who struggle to use ear plugs (ear canals too small or big), or for working in areas where they are exposed to noise for longer durations. Again, ear defenders are not infallible. The foam on the rubber ear cups can deteriorate and become hard and uncomfortable, causing painful marks and rashes on the head. This can also occur on the headband. Some ear defenders are also more technical, incorporating noise-cancelling technology, batteries, and even communications systems. This creates considerations surrounding training of the workforce in their use, and how to correctly maintain and store the equipment. Both types of ear protection can also cause problems with communication between workers, or even worse, totally eliminate noise. I know what you’re saying, “that’s a good thing”. Sure, for blocking out noise, but now we cannot hear vehicles approaching us, or a shout from colleagues warning us of danger.

And mouth and nose

Our mouth and nose are definitely areas we should not ignore. This is our “breathing zone”, and I am sure you can agree that if this area of our body is affected, we are in for a pretty difficult time. One of the main issues here is breathing in some type of hazard or contaminant. There are two main types of protection for this: respirators and breathing apparatus. Respirators are often (but not always) fairly simple masks, that are placed onto the face to cover the nose, mouth and chin. They work by cleaning air that we draw into it when we breath in, the air passing through a filter to get rid of any contaminants and so on. The main issues around these are that the filters are often designed to stop specific sizes of contaminant from reaching us. If we use the wrong filter, the contaminant can still pass through. The filter could also be rendered useless due to becoming blocked up with large amounts of contaminant.

Like ear plugs, most respirators are also one time use only. Fitting them incorrectly also renders them useless. I am sure you have seen plenty of examples of this over the past several months, as the general public has struggled to come to grips with masks, types, how to use them, and so on.

Breathing apparatus offers several advantages compared to their respirator cousins, depending upon the type that is used. They can totally cover the face/head, providing a barrier between worker and hazard. I often experience this when SCUBA Diving, the face mask keeping the salt water out of my eyes and nose, with fresh air being breathed through a regulator, fitted into my mouth. Whilst this sounds great, as with any Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), I can only dive as long as I have air in the tank (trust me, I cannot hold my breath long enough to free dive, and I am certainly no whale or dolphin).

Being a technical piece of equipment, SCBA also requires proper maintenance and storage, and a highlevel of skill and training in order for it to be used effectively. Supplied-air breathing apparatus can – in theory – give an unlimited supply of air, but now the worker is connected to the air source via a hose. This now causes issues with how far they can move, potential damage to hoses and leaks, and so on. As the air is fed in, the sudden loss of air may allow contaminants to enter the mask. With all types of breathing apparatus, contaminants may also enter the mask if it is not sealed against the workers face (maybe a beard or long hair is caught between the worker’s head, and the mask).

Hierarchy of controls

As you can see, there is a plethora of equipment we can use to protect our worker’s heads, but deciding what to use has no easy, straightforward answer. There are so many factors to consider. As always, my advice would be to eliminate the hazards first. If this cannot be done, follow the rest of the hierarchy of controls – substitute, engineering, administration – before you rely on personal protective equipment.

As with any safety issue, the best approach is multi-layered. Ensure your workforce is trained and competent to perform their roles. Regularly service and maintain equipment, to keep it in the best shape possible. If you still struggle or have doubts approach consultants, suppliers and others for assistance. Even when you have an idea of the equipment you want to use, have “Fit-and-Trail” sessions. This will allow you to test a few examples of what you want, not only to ensure it is effective and serves the purpose it was designed for, but also that the workforce are comfortable using it, and it fits well. Suppliers will often do this with a small amount of samples, at little to no cost.

The last thing any business needs is to spend large sums of money on equipment and gear that is useless, and serves no purpose, or that the workforce will not use as it is too complicated, difficult to use, or simply does not fit. This could also be part of a larger strategy of speaking to your workforce. They are on the site, doing the tasks day in, day out, a wealth of information just waiting for you to use. Indeed, the workforce may suggest something that you would never have even considered.

“Keep a cool head”, so that you, your workforce and others, can keep their heads intact.