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Proper Selection of PPE

Published: 10th Jan 2009


The proper selection of PPE against chemical risk is a high and demanding task and is generally required as a result of an employer’s risk assessment. But, what information is necessary for a proper selection and what are the possibilities available.

This article focuses on the question, what is the relevant information on chemicals for proper selection of PPE. But another also important question is; who carries out this selection and in which context of work. We have to consider that in most cases this will be the task of the employer involved within the risk assessment. In the light of this consideration, it must be kept in mind, that the majority of the companies are small and medium-size enterprises. Therefore it may be important to have a look at the principal possibilities for an employer to get support and proper information about the necessary PPE. Beside the suppliers of the chemical products and the manufacturers of PPE the importance of databases and information-systems have increased over the last few years.

Principal possibilities for a proper selection on PPE

The most important instrument for communication along the supply chain is the safety data sheet (SDS). The supplier of a dangerous substance or preparation shall provide the recipient with a safety data sheet compiled in accordance with Annex II of the REACH Regulation. It’s the aim of the safety data sheet to enable the professional users to take the necessary measures at the workplace. Besides the labelling, in most cases the safety data sheets for these dangerous preparations are the only available information sources for the employers. But from studies we have to learn, the quality of the majority of safety data sheets is often very poor. Even in 2007, statements in safety data sheets concerning protective measures are not as detailed as they should be in order to support the small firms sufficiently. We await eagerly the effects of the REACH Regulation in this point.

It seems natural, that the right source for information about the proper selection of PPE should be the manufacturers of the PPE themselves. The leading manufacturers of PPE normally offer a wide range of products for personal protection products. On their WEB-sites and in their brochures they give extensive support for selecting the proper equipment. There you can find a lot of guidance for the selection and use of PPE. But, the most important disadvantage is without any question the fact, that the manufacturers - as well as many other source of information (e.g. databases) - only provide information about pure chemical substances. We have learned from research projects in the last few years, that for example the suitable protection gloves cannot simply be found out by comparing the suitable materials for the individual ingredients.

Today indeed numerous good databases provide data on single dangerous substances. GESTIS, the Substance Database of the BGs Germany, is an excellently supported database on pure chemical substances, with helpful data for PPE. However, we have to consider, that knowledge is required to get information out of data. For example, not everybody in the practice understands the meaning of physical data like the flash point or the statement of certain R-phrases. Even if for pure chemical substances sufficiently understandable information would be available, this could only give little help.

We must always take into account, that only very few small and medium-size enterprises use chemicals as pure substances in their activities. GESTIS gives information regarding the necessary PPE for approximate 3,000 to 4,000 pure chemicals. These recommendations are based on collected information, provided by manufacturers of PPE, suppliers of chemicals and some special databases - like GloSaDa. (Glove Safety database = database on information about the proper material of safety gloves).

The GESTIS substance database is - without any question - in the opinion of most experts one of the best supported databases. But we always come back to the same important fact: most companies do not use pure substances. The predominant number of all companies nearly exclusively use chemical products, which usually are sold by the manufacturers as mixed preparations or substances, more or less in a condition ready for use.

It is a well-known fact, that small and medium-size enterprises of all economic sectors and trades are obviously not able to cope with their duties in the prevention of chemical hazards at the workplace. There is a lack of basic qualification in the field of hazardous substances for most employers from small and medium-size enterprises. Essential duties are unknown and the basic knowledge necessary for the fulfilment of their obligations is missing as well as the required action knowledge. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they have also great difficulties in making a proper selection of the necessary PPE. Without out-of-house support, these companies are not able to implement the health and safety standards at work in this area effectively.

GISBAU – the information system

The construction industry is such an economic sector, in which small and medium-size enterprises dominate. We know that these companies only have a very restricted knowledge about the dangers while working with hazardous materials. In order to enable companies to comply with their duties and therefore to protect the employees’ health, the statutory accident insurance institution of the construction industry in Germany (BG BAU) built up the hazardous materials information system GISBAU in 1989. GISBAU was developed as an out-of-house-support and a service facility in the hazardous materials management.

What is the important difference between GISBAU and other databases on chemical substances for e.g. GESTIS? To answer this question, please remember an essential fact. Most companies normally only use preparations at the workplace. GESTIS is a database on pure chemical substances, which of course may be used in different sectors.

The information-system GISBAU uses a large number of sources to develop information for chemical products (mixtures or preparations) used in the construction sector. The new feature in GISBAU’s procedure is, that the information about the preparation is available under its trade name which is how it is presented to the companies. Understandable, simple formulated indications for safety at work and protection of health are given for all hazardous materials in about twenty information chapters similar to a safety data sheet, but enlarged by topics like workplace measurements, substitute products and so on.

In the light of this consideration the user of GESTIS must have some knowledge in the field of hazardous substances to interpret the data he gets out of GESTIS for single substances. In contrast to this, the information provided by GISBAU is developed for lay people using chemical preparations.

In this matter it is now of considerable importance to understand how GISBAU creates its information. Besides the information delivered from suppliers (like safety data sheets or technical data sheets), the results of several thousand workplace measurements, just as experience and know-how build the basis for a GISBAU-product-Information. Within the procedure of developing such product-information the description of the necessary PPE is an important point.

Product group information

In the beginning we developed thousands of product-information sheets for single preparations. In the face of the number of information sheets, a more practical solution had to be found to provide our message. For the same application purpose usually numerous hazardous materials, which are very similar in their composition, are offered by different manufacturers. The risks to health and necessary protective measures for these products are also very similar. It is obvious, to combine comparable products to product groups. These groups bring together products, which are comparable; a judgement of each individual product is not necessary.

With this GISBAU succeeded to inform about a large variety of chemical products in the construction industry using a limited number of product groups. The assignment of the product to the right product group is carried out by a code of characters and numbers (e.g. GISCODE or product code). The manufacturers print the code in the price lists, safety data sheets and on the containers. Within the last decade, we were successful in creating such product group information systems for many areas of the construction industry. This was done in cooperation with the manufacturers and the construction companies.

Our activities in innovative approaches to good practice in the prevention of risks from dangerous substances at work were kindly noticed also out of Germany. In 2003 GISBAU got one of the “European Good Practice Awards” for producing an understandable information system on dangerous substances for small companies in the construction industries.

In the context of GISBAU’s work in the early nineties, it has soon become evident, that not only a verbal and written advice is wished by the companies. Many companies desired an EDP (electronic data processing) supported application for their work. The PC software WINGIS therefore was developed. This software provides primarily information about the hazardous preparations used at the workplace on construction sites. Besides this, the software contains numerous functions for complete management of hazardous materials in companies. Due to the contained product information and control guidance sheets on thousands of products and helpful additional functions the software enjoys great popularity with companies.

Increasing importance for the distribution of the GISBAU information wins through the internet. Up-to date documents and information about products and materials can quickly and specifically be “transported” into the firms through the internet. The product group information, booklets and much more is available under the address

Selecting PPE for preparations

From our present experience there are two ways of selecting PPE for preparations. The first and most common way is thereby to look at the single ingredients of the preparations. After collecting the necessary data it may be possible to form an estimation of the necessary PPE. This methodical way may be actually the normal case. Another much more effective way is to test the preparations themselves by the manufacturers of PPE. Here for example the reliability and resistance of materials as well as the interaction between different substances will be clearly found.

In this way GISBAU made in co-operation with the glove manufacturers a pilot study on gloves for sanitary cleaners. The result of the study built the starting point for the implementation of the GISBAU Glove database. The procedure of testing is much too complicated for large numbers of preparations. Therefore we changed the method and asked the glove manufacturers for their recommendations. In this database we collected recommendations by the glove manufacturers for the wearing duration of certain gloves for work with products of a certain product group. Up to now there is information available about the suitable gloves for products like wood preservations, paints and varnishes and cleaning agents. We are going on to complete the database also for the missing product groups in the near future.

At the moment the GISBAU Glove database contents about 200 gloves and 120 GISBAU-product groups there were produced more than together 38,000 data files in the GISBAU glove database. And this is still in progress.

One important demand for the use of hazardous materials must be the sufficient information of the employees. The employee must become conscious about the dangers and risks of health at his work. In Germany the essential dangers and protective measures have to be explained in a written operating instruction in the language of the employee. In the construction industry, we are in the difficult situation, that the number of workers, who speak German, is strongly decreasing. On construction sites, you will find many employees from Turkey, Portugal, Poland etc.

To be able to give support also in this difficult situation, GISBAU has translated all control guidance sheets into 13 languages. This special service enjoys a high demand. So our system and approach is principally already prepared to spread out over Europe. Actually the practical approach of GISBAU may serve as a model for risk communication in the supply chain in accordance with the goal of REACH.


The particular situation of the construction industry (mobile jobs, constantly changing working conditions, etc.) means that the workforce faces major risks working with chemicals. Research has shown that small and medium-sized firms in particular are not in a position to guarantee adequate health and safety provision on their own for workers handling dangerous substances.

The proper selection of PPE will be an important item, especially as this is often the only protection measure on construction sites. Within the last few years we have already developed a system to bring the message of safe handling and proper PPE into construction companies. From our experiences today we can say, that the way to inform the companies about the risks related to chemical agents at work must be a very, very simple one. The information must be obtained extremely easily and direct itself at the level of knowledge of the users. Only then will the companies seriously take up measures for protection of their employees’ health.

Product groups information - as one part of GISBAU’s work - has proven to be a particularly effective instrument for the information about the safe handling of chemical products and especially the necessary PPE. In this way GISBAU delivers an acceptable solution to combine data on scientific and technical matters with a realistic level of information understandable to the user.

In the near future REACH will bring us much more knowledge about the qualities of substances. Under these conditions we have for the first time a great chance in prevention to link both these useful topics together.

Published: 10th Jan 2009 in Health and Safety International

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