The appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) promotes worker safety. Since there are various types of PPE, the people providing it and enforcing employee usage must know the most appropriate kinds for the work to be undertaken.
What is PPE?
Personal protective equipment encompasses the items people wear while working to minimise the known risks. It can include earplugs, masks, gloves, and similar items.
Both disposable and reusable types of PPE exist within different product categories. Since wearing single-use items more than once can compromise their effectiveness, people should follow instructions on the PPE packaging about reuse potential.
However, in times of extreme shortage, workplace managers may have people wear single-use items repeatedly and follow specific processes.
Types of PPE and their usage
Using personal protective equipment correctly means correcting misunderstandings surrounding the gear. For example, some people take a “more is always better” approach. However, wearing too much can become cumbersome and become a heat-stress risk. Conversely, not wearing enough PPE could leave workers exposed to hazards.
Another myth about personal protective equipment is the level of protection needed for small or quick jobs. People sometimes think they can go without using PPE for a task that normally requires it because finishing will only take a few minutes. They might even reason it takes longer to put on the necessary garb than to do the job. However, accidents can occur in seconds, meaning it’s never safe to go without PPE if a particular type of work requires it.
Some safety managers also believe they cannot force workers to wear personal protective equipment. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) generally requires people to use PPE to comply with the organisation’s standards. Relatedly, when personal protective equipment usage relates to OSHA compliance, employers cannot make workers pay for the products themselves and must provide them for the workforce.
The types of PPE and their levels
When researching the kinds and uses of PPE needed to maintain worker safety, managers will notice that the descriptions have a letter associated with them. Such a designator for personal protective equipment is the level of protection the item gives the wearer if used properly.
Here are the types of PPE and their levels for non-military settings. Many categories have overlapping types of gear. For example, a person could buy chemical-resistant gloves that meet the A, B, or C levels of PPE.
Products in this category give the highest protection to a person’s skin, lungs, and eyes. People must wear such items when the identified or suspected hazards are prominent enough to warrant maximum protection.
It becomes easier to select the appropriate types of personal protective equipment as people learn more about the associated environment. That said, people should wear the highest-level types of PPE when those overseeing the scene for safety reasons have not yet confirmed the kinds of risks present.
An example of Level A PPE is a fully encapsulated suit that protects the wearer from chemical and vapour-based risks. People using this type of personal protective equipment may also need a self-contained breathing apparatus, and they’ll wear steel-toe boots offering chemical resistance.
The types of PPE categorised as Level B offer the highest respiratory protection. However, the hazard reduction for someone’s skin and
eyes is comparatively lower than Level A items.
When the atmosphere contains less than 19.5% oxygen1, people should choose items from this personal protective equipment group. Level B protection is also often appropriate for people working to clean abandoned sites containing hazardous waste. That’s because the ambient vapours and gases in the atmosphere are not yet at high enough concentrations for Level A gear.
Some examples of products in this category are hooded, chemical-resistant clothing and coveralls.
The types of PPE described here work well when people know the quantity and type of airborne substances in a given environment. Moreover, the work site must meet the criteria for the use of air-purifying respirators.
This is an appropriate type of PPE when the identified hazards will not likely enter someone’s eyes. When people use the types of PPE in this category, safety managers must perform periodic air-quality checks to verify the contaminant level does not worsen and necessitate using Level B gear.
Splash suits and air-purifying respirators are two types of PPE often associated with Level C protection.
People can safely wear the personal protective equipment in this category when there are no skin- or respiratory-based hazards. It primarily protects against nuisances rather than aspects that could endanger someone’s life.
Safety shoes and coveralls are some products that often receive Level D categorisation.
“people should wear the highest-level PPE when overseeing risks”
The five categories of PPE
Each level mentioned above has five broad categories of protective items within it. They are:
- Eye and face protection
- Body protection
- Hand protection
- Respiratory protection
- Hearing protection
Let’s explore them within the context of someone working in a chemistry lab2 or similar setting to make it easier to understand what each of these types and uses of PPE entails.
Eye and face protection
This kind of PPE protects a person’s eyes from flying particles, laser radiation, and chemical splashes, depending on the style chosen. Then, if needed, shields protect someone from the eye area downward to the rest of the face.
General safety glasses are the minimum type of eye protection for workers. These products must have lenses that wrap around the temples or include side shields. Moreover, people can only wear them when working with substances unlikely to damage the eye, such as salts.
People working around lasers must don laser safety glasses to achieve the necessary eye protection. Each pair indicates the wavelength and laser power against which it protects.
Splash goggles protect the eyes from chemicals and infectious substances. This type of eyewear also safeguards the wearer against the impact of flying debris. Thus, people who need impact goggles and can’t source them can wear splash goggles instead. On the other hand, impact goggles are not typically suitable for protecting people against chemicals entering the eyes. They usually have ventilation holes on each side, which could allow liquid substances to enter.
People working with chemicals likely to cause immediate skin damage, such as concentrated acids, must wear face shields along with splash goggles. Certain tasks necessitating this gear also require using respiratory protection.
“choose chemical-resistant gloves when working with solvents”
Some types of PPE in this category extend to full-body hazmat suits. However, people working in chemical labs can wear cotton or cotton-polyester lab coats to protect their skin from exposure to non-hazardous chemicals. If their work requires being around at least four litres of flammable chemicals, employees should wear flame-resistant garments.
Those working with infectious materials should protect their bodies with barrier coats primarily made from polyester. These garments are not flame-resistant, but they safeguard people from chemical splashes.
The types of personal protective equipment for the hands are extensive and highly task-dependent. For example, people need insulated gloves if handling cryogenic materials and wire-mesh ones if working with live animals or performing tasks that could cut the hands.
However, people should choose heavy chemical-resistant gloves when working with large amounts of organic solvents. Lighter-grade ones, made of nitrile, sufficiently protect the hands against most air- and water-reactive chemicals. Latex gloves made of natural rubber are good choices when working with small amounts of chemicals, including flammable or corrosive ones.
Surgical masks do not need fit tests. However, these options don’t protect the wearer from inhaled fumes. They’re useful if the main goal is to protect a delicate sample from contamination via someone’s breath.
N-95 respirators support worker safety by protecting wearers from dust, mists, fumes, and infectious diseases, including airborne types with high transmissibility levels. These masks require fit tests.
Half-mask or full-face respirators provide greater protection than N-95 respirators because they purify the air. They safeguard people from numerous particulates, vapours, fumes, and infectious diseases if people choose the correct cartridges. For example, P-100 cartridges primarily protect against dust, but wearers need organic vapour cartridges when working with organic solvents giving off fumes.
Fit tests for masks and respirators
Many types of PPE that protect the lungs require users to perform fit tests to ensure effectiveness. A qualitative fit test requires a measuring device to determine the air leakage around the face. Then, a quantitative fit test relies on the user’s senses to determine effectiveness. For example, the tester may ask the wearer if they can smell a certain odour while wearing the respirator.
Experts recommend conducting a fit test3 at least annually. However, users should carry out a seal test each time they put on a respirator. In such cases, a person gently exhales and quickly inhales while blocking the parts of the mask where air may escape. The wearer passes the seal check if the mask’s exterior collapses slightly during inhalation and minor pressure buildup occurs during exhalation.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends workers wear earplugs when their work exposes them to sounds meeting or exceeding 85 decibels as an eight-hour total weighted average (TWA). Moreover, workers at risk of exposure to single noises exceeding 100 decibels or those with a TWA of more than 140 decibels need earplugs and earmuffs worn simultaneously.
Certain earplugs provide too much protection for the people in relevant roles, however. That issue brings risks, too. Individuals with overly robust protection may have difficulty hearing equipment alarms or reversing vehicles. Many professional musicians wear earplugs while on stage. But, some varieties prevent them from hearing the frequencies associated with in-tune or out-of-tune notes. In such cases, working with an individual to understand their expectations and uses for PPE often gets the best results.
People can expect equal protection whether they use disposable or reusable earplugs. The disposable types do not require cleaning, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane foam is usually the primary material used to make them. Wearers typically roll them into a tight, cylindrical shape before inserting them into the ear, then let the foam expand to block sound.
Conversely, reusable earplugs often feature silicone and a tapered design for a snug fit. These are the more durable of the two types of personal protective equipment to protect the ears. But, since they’re also more expensive, safety managers should consider things such as how often people’s roles require hearing protection. Some workers may mention that they frequently lose their earplugs. In such cases, switching to a corded style that allows them to keep them around the neck when not inserted should help.
Choosing the right PPE
When choosing different types of PPE, there are no universal answers, such as that all people in certain occupations should always wear a specific level of gear. However, a good worker safety starting point is to become familiar with the most likely risks a person will face in their role.
People who service industrial trucks reduce the breakdown risk4 of those vehicles, potentially lengthening their usage. Mechanics should wear personal protective equipment, including gloves, earplugs, and safety glasses or goggles, depending on what specific vehicles require.
“when choosing PPE there are no universal answers”
Safety managers should consider how certain gear may put extra strain on the wearer, too. For example, one 2018 study found that 46.9 per cent of participants surpassed their maximum5 recommended heart rates while performing CPR and wearing Level D personal protective equipment. The researchers concluded that since doing CPR in that gear requires such intensive physical effort, people should receive additional training first.
Training is essential for anyone who uses PPE. Otherwise, they could make mistakes that make the protective gear less effective. For example, failing to correctly doff personal protective equipment after exposure to infectious diseases could make the wearer ill. The potential outcomes are similar if a person does not know how to check the fit of eye and face wear before working on an industrial site.
Some job types require certain types of PPE that other occupations rarely or never do. Construction workers must don hard hats or helmets before entering a job site, and if they work at heights, their safety gear would likely include harnesses. Moreover, nail technicians should wear surgical masks to avoid inhaling acetone fumes. However, their work likely does not require earplugs.
Risk assessments support use
Conducting a role-based and site-based risk assessment is essential to understanding the most common threats to worker safety. Doing that starts with understanding the hazard’s nature and frequency. Then, assess which workers face the highest associated risks and what the specific threats are to them.
Someone working with industrial-strength cleaning agents has a different risk profile than a construction site manager. Additionally, some aspects of an individual worker may prevent them from using certain personal protective equipment. The most common example is if a worker has a latex allergy and cannot use gloves containing it.
A risk assessment also includes looking for ways to minimise the hazards. None of the expected uses of PPE can eliminate risk. Using the right gear is only part of keeping people safe. Researchers studying the feasibility of flights to Mars identified radiation shielding for the spacecraft6 as a vital element of protecting the astronauts. However, those space travellers will still wear protective gear. Making a workplace change not related to PPE, such as switching to a less dangerous chemical or reducing the number of people who operate a particular machine, can improve worker safety.
“PPE helps control residual risk once managers do everything to prevent accidents”
PPE helps control the residual risk once safety managers do everything they can to make process, environmental, or any other changes to prevent accidents. Once those decision-makers choose which products to use, they must provide specifics for how and when people should use them.
Treat risk assessments as documents that get updated as things change at work. Hiring new team members, investing in new equipment, or starting to make a different product are all things necessitating a second look at the types and uses of PPE.
PPE supports better worker safety
Even the most protective types of PPE cannot safeguard workers from all threats. However, they make a significant difference when used correctly. Knowing how and when to use these products is essential for keeping people safe while on the clock.