Personal protective equipment (PPE) exists almost everywhere in industrial sectors. Workers across the globe use it on a daily basis to protect themselves from injury or illness. But is it the best form of protection against hazards?
What is clear is that although PPE is not the best control for a risk, it provides an important aspect of protection. PPE is equipment that will protect the user against health or safety risks at work, according to the Personal Protective Equipment at Work regulation.
It is vital that businesses realise that PPE is not the only form or method of protection against hazards; in fact it comes at the bottom of options when choosing a control measure. We use the PPE option when all other controls can’t be used – or can be used, but do not fully protect employees.
The decision of which control measure it is best to use follows a hierarchy to ensure a better protection. The first option is to eliminate the hazard, the second is reduce the exposure to that hazard or reduce its intensity to the employees, the third is isolation of the hazard source to keep the employees away, and the fourth is the introduction of engineering controls.
As the name indicates, PPE is for personal use. This means that no two people should share the same equipment. So what is it? PPE has a wide range of applications and usages.
All PPE is split into two main categories: above the neck and the body.
Above the Neck Protection: • Head • Respiratory protection • Eyes and face • Hearing
Body Protection: • Fall protection • Clothing • Hand protection • Shoes
Having grasped the basics of what PPE is, it is important to understand the cycle of selection, maintenance, usage and disposal of the equipment decided upon. This cycle should be followed because in many cases, the choice of the PPE is not suitable for the job. During many instances of risk assessment training as well as general discussion with people in different sectors, PPE seems to be the easiest and most recognised tool of protection.
You can even test it. When explaining to people that we have a hazard that we need to control the first answer would be PPE. If you do implement a behavioural observation tool in your organisation, the highest observation would be the usage/non usage of PPE. It is very easy to observe and verify and there is not much to discuss: whatever we have in the store should be used – whether it is the right or wrong selection.
Since it is equipment, we might as well treat it as that and follow the same process as any other equipment that is being purchased for operation. There is a purchasing process that most companies adhere to for the selection, operation and disposal at later stages.
Not all PPE is the same and, most importantly, price is not the only factor that should be considered when making a selection. The understanding of need is based on the outcome of a risk assessment in the workplace to confirm the need. The risk assessment will highlight the criteria of selection as it simplifies the understanding of hazards at different levels of the activities being conducted.
Some would argue that the choice is easy: people and PPE are two variables that make up a simple equation and it should not take too much hassle, and certainly doesn’t require an article like this to be written.
Unfortunately, it is not that easy. People are all so different. We are all different sizes, with different shapes of organs like ears, noses and heads. People also have differing preferences and propensities towards extra equipment on their bodies.
PPE often comes with multiples of choices when there is uncertainty of what to buy. The result of the risk assessment should make this decision less challenging.
How to select or choose
The first consideration should be what types of hazards are present in a workplace, as identified through a proper risk assessment. This applies to all types of PPE. Is the selected item capable of protecting against one or a group of below hazards?
• Mechanical • Electrical • Working environment – noise, heat and vibration • Substances: hazardous, biological and fire • Movement of goods and people • Human factors – manual handling and errors
Does the PPE fit the person who will use it properly?
As previously mentioned, people are different and they don’t all use the same type of equipment as it may not fit. Companies should try to aim for the higher population fit.
If we follow a normal distribution the majority of people in an organisation would be around 68%, therefore a minimum acceptance of a certain PPE should be of that ratio.
Companies with a higher safety implementation would consider a range of the same item and same specification to be suitable for the hazards but in different shapes to cover as many people as possible.
Yes, it can be difficult for procurement and re-ordering, but this can be mitigated by proper maintenance and training on usage. It is imperative to understand that this is normally a change to the people using PPE; it is objected to as with any change. It is expected that proper implementation will take time, yet training and follow up should make that process easier. What is important is that the management team should set an example.
As opposed to some machines and equipment that are purchased, PPE has an excellent advantage in that it can be trialled prior to ordering the full quantities. Trials should be controlled, as in some cases some companies haven’t been able to establish the proper brand or type to purchase.
None of the PPEs will be fully suitable for each individual; there will be some adjustment time. Again, the trial control and proper circumstances would play a vital role to ensure the proper fit. The PPE should be trialled over a period of time and worn throughout all the activities it is intended for. It is true that 100% acceptance will never be achieved; this is not the aim, the aim is to ensure suitability over a period of time without hindering or causing extra hazards to the individual user.
Is the PPE fit for purpose?
Yes we have identified the hazard and yes we will trial the PPE with the people to ensure it protects without creating more hazards, but we still need a further confirmation that it is fit for the job.
There are different ranges of protection for the same hazard, depending on the exposure time and severity of the manifestation of the hazard. Just selecting the general criteria, therefore, is not enough.
The occupational safety and health person on site should be very knowledgeable in understanding the severity of the hazard for a proper selection. Again, the price should not be the factor of determining the choice. Safety and health is an investment, not a cost.
On the other hand, we are not promoting the top end of availability – as low as reasonably practicable should be the base. Fit for purpose is a continuous process and will not end after the purchase. On the contrary, it continues after that and is critical during the usage monitoring to ensure suitability and a proper level of comfort for the users.
So far we have conducted a risk assessment and identified in detail what the hazards are to which the employees would be exposed. We have identified the range of PPE that is needed and should be bought. We have requested some samples in order to make some trials in house to ensure suitability and fitness for purpose. Moving on, we should start using that PPE in the operation. It is important to understand that the examples drawn below are coming from an industrial sector excluding construction and oil and gas.
Before we start using any equipment, employees should be trained properly on the usage, maintenance and cleaning. It is preferable to have the supplier give the training.
Why is it so important to conduct that training? It has been noticed that employees do not necessarily know how to wear or use the selected PPE. They then carry the equipment and pretend to wear it to avoid getting into trouble should management see.
Two examples will show that the complexity of the PPE has nothing to do with the proper usage; employees are simply given the equipment and expected to use it. Or sometimes they think they know how to use it but in reality they don’t. In fact, the least complex and relatively cheaper forms of PPE are the ones used incorrectly the most.
Earplugs are one of the simplest forms of PPE available on the market, but many people don’t know how to wear them and some don’t even know when to use them.
There are two aspects to consider when looking at simple equipment like earplugs: the employer and the employee.
The employer should follow the selection process as described earlier. Moreover, they need to ensure the training has been completed properly. The follow up on implementation should be regularly monitored by different means and tools.
Why do we suggest and recommend the training and monitoring? Quite simply it helps people preserve their hearing capabilities – this is the most important reason. Yet there is another reason: it saves money on law suits due to occupational illness – hearing loss is a chronic illness that is not noticed immediately due to improper usage of PPE.
On the other hand, the employee should follow the proper way of wearing the earplugs for his/her own sake, as otherwise they could lose their hearing. They could claim compensation money, but what will this serve against the frustration of not being able to hear your grandkids calling or your favourite TV show?
Both employers and employees should work together in ensuring that the system is working properly. Most employers buy either single use or multi-use earplugs; employees find it easier to use the disposable ones because they don’t need maintenance or cleaning.
Disposable earplugs are mainly for visitors because of their attenuation levels for a period of time. They aren’t easily cleaned and employees tend to make them dirty during regular activities and then place them into their ears, which can increase the chance of them becoming ill or getting injured.
As the name suggests, personal protective equipment should be personalised for individuals. There are moulded earplugs that are designed to exactly fit an individual’s ear. If this is too expensive then we should not select them and employers should aim directly for disposables. Earmuffs can also be a good selection. They do cost more, but they help and save in the long run on costs.
Most of the earplugs have illustrated instructions on how to wear them correctly, but people simply don’t always see this. So how do we overcome this? The first method is a test for you as a supervisor or employer at work: look at the people wearing earplugs and verify if they are worn properly. Most of the time, you will be able to spot that earplugs are not in the correct position. One other observation that you can verify is that many would not actually wear their earplugs until they are on their work posts. So from the entrance of the noisy workplace to the actual workstation, the employees are not wearing the earplugs.
Over the years, it has been noticed that if there is no follow up on implementation then people will just slip away from the norms.
The second method is the health surveillance, especially the hearing test. This test should be conducted regularly in operations with noise levels above 80 dB(A) over an eight-hour shift. This is the current lower exposure action value. In the future, it is expected to reduce further – so be prepared.
It is important that you train your employees to properly use and clean their PPE so that they can preserve their hearing better. They need to protect themselves from inducing extra hazards due to unclean or improper equipment.
A second example is eye protection, equipment used to preserve another sense that we use on a daily, hourly basis and actually every second of our life when we are awake.
You may ask yourself why we are only discussing equipment related to our senses – the answer is that those are irreplaceable.
We may all remember cases of injuries where people lost their sight, or heard stories about such cases. I have personally seen people who were on the verge of losing their eyes because they haven’t properly worn their eye protection.
In some cases they have chosen the incorrect type of PPE. It is always a pity to see that kind of incident and the reasons behind it. People forget to conduct a simple risk assessment before doing any task, not to mention a new task that they are not accustomed to.
Wearing the eye protection on top of your head or one that is designed for a mechanical job instead of a chemical one doesn’t really protect you – many of us have seen a case where an eye could have been injured seriously because someone did not consider the proper precautions.
In Egypt we have a saying – “the eyes have a guardian”. Please don’t take that for granted, as your guardian one day may just be sick or absent.
The reasons behind not wearing the eye protection could be heat or improper maintenance and cleaning of the safety glasses. This goes back to training, provision of cleaning stations, provision of cases to carry the glasses when not used and most importantly the complacency of the individuals to actually take the time to clean and take proper care of them.
In summary, there are two important parameters to consider during the introduction of PPE in an industrial environment – employer and employee. Both need training: the first on how to identify the need, select the proper PPE, conduct the required training and follow up on implementation; the latter should participate in the identification process, the selection, attentive listening during training, reading the instruction, and asking when not sure.
We want to see all workers in all industries covered by a culture of care. PPE is just a small part of that, but it is vital. It is an investment that can help protect a business’s reputation and as a result, boost revenue.
We should all get involved in the protection of individuals in the work environment. It is not the job of the occupational safety and health professionals alone; it is everyone’s responsibility.
Published: 13th Oct 2015 in Health and Safety Middle East