Darren Taylor, of health and safety equipment supplier The UK Safety Store, outlines some of the reasons why protective workwear continues to remain a much misunderstood subject with both frontline staff and health and safety managers.

He also looks at some of the simple solutions on offer to increase awareness, knowledge, and practical use of vital protective equipment.

Clarifying the need

Protective clothing is pretty big business. For many retailers it’s by far the largest market for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), with customers investing almost twice as much on overalls, boiler suits, high visibility clothing and coveralls than all the other types – including footwear, protective eyewear and gloves – put together.

This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that companies always follow the correct health and safety procedures, or, for that matter, that workers ‘buy in’ to the reasons why they need to wear PPE and comply with the wide range of health and safety regulations.

Since many purchasers of such PPE operate in the construction sector, research carried out by the Occupational Health and Environmental Safety Division of a global technology company was of great interest to me.

Construction is a particularly dangerous and high risk industry, accounting for more than 2,800 work-related deaths in the UK over the past 25 years alone. Yet, despite huge technological advances in PPE, the invention of supposedly much more ‘user-friendly’ materials, and the introduction of increasingly stringent health and safety legislation, construction still has the highest number of fatal injuries across all the main industry groups.

Research findings

Research found that some construction site workers continue to have a rather cavalier attitude towards protective clothing, but even more worryingly, that little was being done in terms of training or education to rectify this situation.

Some health and safety managers interviewed during the study admitted to a lack of knowledge about different PPE product specifications and which clothing would be most suitable for their workplace, while they also had concerns about how to deal with unknown or unpredictable hazards.

With such a lack of clarity, it should therefore come as no surprise to discover that only just over half of construction workers (56%) received any PPE training at all, with nearly a third simply selecting the protective clothing they thought was most suitable for the appropriate task.

Workers also acknowledged their biggest issues with PPE were to do with comfort and performance. Three-quarters said that if workwear was more comfortable, they would be more willing to wear it than is currently the case.

Influential factors

Traditionally, workwear has been judged against very basic criteria – does it protect the worker and is it functional enough to let them do their job effectively?

But while these factors are obviously important, other issues need just as careful consideration, especially comfort, style and wearability.

If workers aren’t happy with the items of protective clothing that they have been issued with – because it’s uncomfortable, slows down their work, or for a whole host of other reasons – then evidence suggests that they are less likely to wear it, which, of course, dramatically increases the probability of accidents and heightens the risk that they will suffer injury.

So if clothes fit properly and don’t impede the wearer’s ability to do their job, they are much less likely to suffer a costly lapse in concentration or make a potentially lethal mistake.

Changing attitudes

But what can be done to bring about a shift in these attitudes? Firstly, it has to be noted that in many cases, staff must wear protective clothing as a legal requirement. Here in the UK, the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations (1992) – which are based on the European Directive 89/656/EEC – clearly state that employers are responsible for providing, maintaining and replacing any equipment that protects workers from risks to their own health and safety.

But, as we have seen, even though protective clothing can be provided by employers, unless employees actually buy in to the need for them to wear PPE, these regulations can often be ignored, sometimes with tragic consequences.

It is therefore absolutely essential to involve staff at all stages of the process of choosing what protective clothing is needed, beginning with any risk assessments and general evaluations undertaken to weigh up what types of workwear is required. Talking to staff and taking into account their work environment, their role, and what sort of workwear would be most effective, can help get them on board at the start and reduce the likelihood of conflict or confusion later down the line.

Depending on the job involved, workwear can protect against a huge variety of threats, from fire and flames at one extreme, to freezing cold temperatures at the other, as well as helping to combat other risks such as poor visibility or handling of hazardous materials.

The right product for the job

Of course, many jobs require workwear that provides protection against a combination of these risks, such as the emergency services. And as well as the basic 89/656/EEC Directive, depending on the circumstances, other safety standards may also need to be considered. For example, high visibility clothing should adhere to EN 471, workwear to protect against heat and flames should meet EN ISO 11612:2008, while for outside workers, such as builders, cleaners and gardeners, UV Standard 801 – the international test for protection against sunlight – should also be taken into account.

When choosing which types of workwear are needed for a particular job or work environment, it is always advisable to work closely with various suppliers and manufacturers to work out which types of clothing, and which particular products, will be the most suitable.

All products that meet the minimum health and safety requirements will include the European Union’s mark of conformity – CE – so this is always a good initial place to start. Workwear needs to offer the right level of protection against risk while at the same time being suitable for the job in hand, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are a whole range of other factors that may need to be taken into account:

• What parts of the body need protecting? • What type of protection is necessary and what are the main health and safety risks facing the worker? Will workwear protect against specific safety risks without impacting on overall health and safety? • Will the job require a combination of protective clothing, and if so, are the different types of workwear compatible? • Will the use of protective workwear lead to any other health and safety risks? For example, is the clothing likely to get tangled up in any equipment or will it increase the risk of slips and trips? • How will wearing any protective clothing impact on the wearer’s ability to do their job? • Is the clothing comfortable, does it fit properly and is it durable? • What training will staff require to use the protective clothing effectively and safely? • How and when will the workwear be cleaned, maintained and, when necessary, replaced? • What is the cost of buying and maintaining the required workwear?

These days, there are various ways to test the efficacy and quality of protective workwear. As well as traditional lab-based tests on materials, manufacturers now use very advanced mannequins and replicate real-life conditions to analyse both the performance and practicality of their products.

Even characteristics such as comfort, that seem almost impossible to evaluate objectively, can in fact be measured impartially – fabrics can be tested for their thermal insulation, water resistance, and how long they take to dry, for instance.

As with choosing any health and safety-related equipment, it is vital for employers to work alongside suppliers and manufacturers to determine which the most suitable products for their staff are. It’s now fairly standard practice to commission additional testing from manufacturers, where the employers can specify the work-based environment that they wish to see the workwear evaluated in – it is always worth trying to arrange full-scale trial periods, where various options can be tested on-site over a set timescale to determine which will be the most effective.

Achieving compliance

Once the correct workwear has been chosen, we then come back to the crucial issue of getting staff to believe in the concept of health and safety, which requires striking the appropriate balance between providing ‘carrots’ – including appropriate training and general awareness raising – and resorting to using the ‘big stick’ of enforcement.

As in most situations, an approach where the emphasis is on education? rather than dictation tends to be much more productive. The vast majority of workers understand the need for PPE and want to be protected against accident, injury and illness, but they would like their concerns over issues such as comfort and lack of appropriate training to be addressed by managers.

Rather than attempting to impose a ‘top down’ health and safety regime, working closely with staff can reap great rewards. From asking for workers’ input and thoughts early in the planning process, to offering a selection of workwear alternatives and asking for feedback and preferences, it is much more likely that workers will adopt a more positive approach and become more willing wearers of protective clothing.

As comfort is an ongoing concern to wearers, make sure that any staff in need of workwear are kitted out properly so their protective clothing fits.

To tackle any ongoing concerns over whether the clothing will impact on job performance, training and education needs to be appropriate. Remember, research suggests that only 56% of construction workers received any training about using protective clothing. A similar number claimed they were ‘told’ what PPE to wear, while 30% just chose what they felt was the most appropriate for their role.

Dictating what staff should wear obviously doesn’t lend itself to promoting an open, accepting culture, while not providing staff with the necessary training, information and guidance – and basically letting them choose for themselves – will be just as counter-productive, not to mention potentially risky.

Care and maintenance

As well as getting employees on board with the overall process of selecting the correct protective clothing, and implementing an open and regularly updated training regime so staff are fully aware of why and how to use PPE, it is also crucial to put plans in place for the effective cleaning, maintenance and eventual replacement of workwear as and when it’s required.

It may seem obvious, but if PPE isn’t maintained to the very highest standards, then the level of protection it actually provides can be compromised. For instance, night workers or employees in the transportation sector may need to utilise high visibility jackets to ensure that they can be seen in a dangerous environment. But if their clothes are dirty, or perhaps part of the reflective material has been damaged, then the workwear isn’t as effective at protecting the wearer as it should be.

Again, encouraging workers to take ‘ownership’ of this process, such as involving them in developing cleaning and maintenance routines or making sure they are trained to know how to properly look after their own workwear, is the most effective route.

After working in the health and safety sector for more than 20 years, I’m only too well aware of some of the negative perceptions the industry can be subjected to, with many workers thinking ‘health and safety’ is just another in a long line of bureaucratic measures put in place that make it more and more difficult to carry out their day-to-day duties effectively.

The only way we’ll manage to bring about a root and branch change to these sorts of attitudes, and the dangers to workplace safety that they can often lead to, is to promote a culture of greater involvement, openness and education.

Although some of the steps discussed throughout this article may seem quite small in isolation, like making sure that staff are asked whether their protective clothing is comfortable or not, it is only by adopting such a ‘bottom up’ and inclusive approach that attitudes will change.

Published: 10th Apr 2011 in Health and Safety International