Many employers are aware of their basic duty of care to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) at work, but do they really consider the value and the importance of health and safety workwear in their organisation?

Employers recognise the need to provide safety wear to protect their staff from carrying out tasks in a high risk environment; for example, to protect from burning if employees work close to hot ovens or furnaces. What, though, are the thought processes that managers and supervisors go through when issuing safety workwear?

When an employee has to conduct a task in a risky environment, and they do not feel completely protected, they will be keeping an eye on protecting themselves rather than carrying out the task as efficiently and effectively as they could. Issuing basic protective workwear does help to overcome this risk, but does it really place a value on helping the employee to be as comfortable and productive as they possibly could be?

If, for example, employees are working in hot environments, is the material that the protective clothing is made of fully breathable and made of natural fibres that will absorb perspiration? Is the employee’s movement restricted because the clothing is too bulky?

When considering purchasing new assets for a company, management will assess the best equipment looking at issues of output, performance and value. If the outputs can be improved on a new piece of equipment, then the cost can be justified. Is this the same when considering our employees and their health and safety workwear? Too often managers just provide the basic level of protection to cover the risk, but have they really thought about the quality and options available, and how poor quality workwear, may protect the employee, but can impact on their productivity?

I believe there is a business case for ensuring that employees are protected in a comfortable manner. This will allow them to feel safe when carrying out a hazardous task. Staff who are supplied well fitting, quality workwear are more likely to feel valued and more motivated; ultimately this can help with the retention and recruitment of staff.

Workplace risks are varied and include the obvious serious electricity risks, fire, chemical hazards and dangerous machinery which can cause fatality or loss of limbs or sight. There are other unseen risks that do not necessarily cause an immediate problem, yet can cause significant issues to an employee’s hearing, skin, lungs and breathing. Employers should always consider weighing up risk with comfort. The comfort factor should not be considered just from a production and value perspective, but from a knowledge that wrongly fitted personal protecting clothing can have fatal consequences. For example, loose fitting protective clothing can easily get caught in machinery, causing a serious accident. Prior to issuing any protective clothing, carry out a health and safety risk assessment. Factors to consider include: • What are the hazards? • Who might be harmed and how might they be harmed from the hazards? • What existing controls are in place and what other reasonable, practicable controls could be implemented? • Record • Review

What are the hazards?

In carrying out a risk assessment, it is important to understand the nature of the hazard and the extent of the risk. For example, if a hazard is a noise, then how loud is the noise and what is the frequency that it occurs at? If a person is working in a high temperature environment, how high is the temperature and for how long are they working in it?

Who might be harmed?

Obviously, anyone carrying out the task could be harmed, but the person carrying out the risk assessment needs to consider the individuals involved and if there is anything specific to them that could affect them carrying out the task. For example, someone with asthma may have a greater risk when dealing with a dusty environment than someone who has not. By understanding the individual you can recommend personal protection specific for them. When carrying out the risk assessment, consider the environment the person is working in and the level of movement they have in conducting their tasks. If they are working in a very hot environment, then special fabrics to help the skin breathe and keep cool should be considered, in addition to the fabric’s protective qualities. If a person is required to carry out considerable movement, then lightweight and compact clothing should be worn so as not to inhibit actions.

What existing controls are in place?

These could be the traditional forms of protective clothing, barrier creams or gloves. Having conducted an individual’s assessment you will be able to understand how effective the current controls are and whether they could be safer and more productive by considering additional controls.

What additional controls could be introduced?

As mentioned previously, an employer will consider the best available equipment for their factory if they think they can gain a return on this investment, and health and safety equipment should be no different. There are many cases where a Local Exhaust Ventilation system (LEV), or barrier creams may provide protection against dust particles or exposure to chemical substances. A correctly fitting personal respirator or a good pair of gloves, however, will leave individuals feeling safe and more confident that they are fully protected.

Record and review

Nothing in the workplace stays the same for long so it is vital that regular risk assessments are carried out to review if any situation has changed. Typically, changes occur to an individual – perhaps a pregnancy, or a change in who is carrying out a task, or changes to a given process, or manufacturers or regulatory bodies may change substance exposure limits.

Manufacturers produce material safety data sheets (MSDS) and these are updated on an annual basis. As such, these should always be monitored to check that the people wearing the equipment are still fully protected. As well as assessing how the employee could be protected by clothing, a better approach is to consider how the risk could be reduced or eliminated.

For example, guards on machinery can reduce the risk of fingers or hands being caught in its operation and extraction machines can reduce fumes and dust in the workplace. Overall, we have to consider the whole package; that is:

• The worker – as an individual

• The work environment – temperature, humidity, light, noise or vibration

• The work equipment – layout, access to controls; for example, small buttons that need to be accessed while wearing gloves or by-products including heat

All of these elements could be loosely termed ergonomics. By considering all of the above during both our risk assessment and subsequent PPE specification, we will ensure both a safe and productive worker. Many injuries in the workplace are caused not so much by the hazard of the task but by the repetition of the task and the posture an individual takes up. It is important that when carrying out an assessment the ergonomic issues are considered; in a factory, for example, how often is an individual using similar limbs in assembling components using repetitive movements?

Personal protective equipment

Many areas of the body should be protected when carrying out particular tasks and there is a vast array of specialist safety workwear on the market. There are, however, a lot of cheap, basic products that pay only ‘lip service’ to protecting an employee. Outlined below are some thoughts on the various aspects of protective workwear.

Eye protection

So many of us associate health and safety risks with physical accidents such as falling from height or injuries from lifting heavy objects. There are, however, many unusual hazards such as a chemical splash in the eye that can cause permanent blinding or significant, painful, temporary damage.

Eye protection is recommended to prevent dangerous particles and infectious fluids from entering the eye. In many instances, you will not be able to predict the direction of any potential chemical splash, and if this is the case, eye goggles may not be the answer. A full-face visor is often needed to ensure maximum protection from high-speed particles hitting the eye in dangerous working conditions. Maximum protection is very important. The wrong type of eye protection, say eyeglasses with no sides, is insufficient as it leaves the eye unprotected. With potentially thousands of people across the globe blinded each year from work-related eye injuries, don’t let your employees become another statistic.

Electric arc protection

Individuals who work in and around electricity need protection from this hazard. In some instances, employees can find themselves working alongside a significant electrical? discharge, where they need to be protected from temperatures of up to 12,000° C. An electrical arc can occur in so many different situations of varying intensity; therefore a ‘one glove fits all’ approach cannot be applied.

Protection can only be recommended after the five stages of a health and safety risk assessment has been carried out and the full ergonomic implications are considered. Full protection is required for people working close to electricity and should not just cover clothing, gloves and footwear.

The tools an employee uses should be fit for purpose and provide additional protection; for example, all insulated hand tools should also be considered.

Protective clothing

Workwear and protective clothing comes in all shapes, sizes, materials and weights to ensure a person involved in a specific task or environment is adequately protected and able to apply the level of physicality required.

Disposable coveralls protect the skin against hazardous dry particles and chemical sprays. These are used in various applications and include asbestos removal, construction and pharmaceutical purposes. Disposable coveralls act as a lightweight, full body protector allowing the individual to work freely and safely. Often sold in white for clean chemicals and clinical environments, with blue versions sold for construction related activities. The colour of coveralls can be important for identifying the different risks and substances a person is working in. Despite being multi-purpose, however, disposable coveralls must not be used as fire retardant clothing.

Very often protective clothing needs to be worn in a hazardous area, where people need to be noticed. For example, if an individual is welding rail lines or laying hot tarmac they need to be protected both from the risk of the task and the environment around them.

Many protective clothing manufacturers now supply materials that are lightweight, fully breathable, have high heat resistance and are high visibility too.

Hand protection

While protective clothing should also cover hands, there are detailed options to consider when supplying gloves to the workforce. Insulated gloves will protect the hands from extremely high temperatures of up to 500° C, but will they allow the individual to carry out the task easily?

As with other aspects of protection a risk assessment must be carried out to consider the risk; the choice of gloves will depend on the potential hazards involved and the level of resistance required, the grip and thickness necessary to operate machinery or conduct their task. For example, an abattoir will need chainmail gloves made from steel to protect the worker from the machinery associated with cutting animals, but as they are often working in cold environments, while they will provide 100% protection, the person will have such cold fingers they will not be able to operate the machinery properly.

Like all protective clothing, gloves should be checked before each use for small cuts and tears. If working with chemical hazards and small particles of dust, for relatively low risk activities, it may be worth carrying out a simple test of integrity by filling the gloves with water to expose any pinhole leaks. Inspecting the gloves is vital as the quality and levels of protection can diminish quickly with excessive use.

Respiratory protection

Some people might believe that RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) is simply a multi-purpose mask, but there is a range of different products designed for respiratory protection in various industries. These forms of RPE protect users from inhaling airborne contaminants that are generally unseen and therefore unnoticed.

The primary concern is to establish is whether there is sufficient oxygen to support life, as there is a misconception about what a respirator can do and how it operates. It must be remembered that a respirator will only remove the contaminants it was designed to deal with and allow us to survive if there is a guarantee of adequate levels of oxygen persisting. If there is any doubt at all and we still need humans to access a given area, then we would need to specify an alternate type of RPE, in the form of breathing apparatus, (BA). BA can take the form of ‘self contained’, SCBA, typically used for short term access and/or where we need lots of ability to wander about; for example, during a search and rescue type of operation. Respiratory conditions are serious as permanent damage can happen instantly from a single breath – acute effects – or slowly through inhaling a contaminant over a long period of time – chronic effects. Either way, by entering the body via the respiratory system these hazards can be devastating to a worker in future years.

The correct form of RPE depends on the hazards the user faces. The levels of protection can therefore vary greatly due to the necessary requirements of working in different environments. Whether it is working with dust, gas or chemicals it is vitally important that a risk assessment is conducted in order to identify the appropriate form of RPE needed. Also consider if there is anything you can do to improve the working environment; for example, extraction hoods to draw dust out of the atmosphere.

Hearing protection

When working in an excessively noisy environment hearing protection is vitally important, whether it be when using power tools or machinery. Comfort is essential as the hearing protector will often need to be worn securely throughout the day without giving irritation. The danger of exposing the ears to damaging noise as a result of removing them due to discomfort can be avoided through the correct choice of hearing protection.

Deciding whether to wear small earplugs to block the ear canal, or large earmuffs to fit over the entire ear, will depend on the working environment and personal choice of the user. While the primary purpose of hearing protection is to block damaging noise, it is also important that the employee still has the ability to communicate for instructions and hear warning signals. The right level of noise reduction therefore needs to be considered as for most people, what you block out can be as important as what you need to hear.

Choosing, cleaning, maintaining and inspecting equipment

After making an assessment of the potential risks, you will need to identify the right type and grade of protective clothing/equipment. Though the various standards for protective clothing are vast and can appear quite daunting, the differences need to be understood as an item of clothing that might appear to be of the highest protection, is likely to be useless in other work settings. For example, a chainmail glove that is insulated would offer no protection against a dangerous chemical burn. Once an employee is equipped with the protection they need, the employer needs to establish an effective system of maintenance to ensure it continues to provide the necessary levels of protection.

As mentioned earlier, regular recording and reviewing of the risk is vital. This should include inspection of the equipment, checking carefully for signs of damage or wear. An effective maintenance system of any equipment should comprise of an examination, testing, cleaning, repair and replacement as well as checking that the allowable exposure limits from the manufacturer have not changed. Through introducing a schedule an employer or trained member of staff can identify defective equipment before it is issued, ensuring the PPE provided has been cleaned and, if relevant, disinfected and checked in detail for faults. If faults are found they will need to be recorded to avoid future mishaps, or repaired by a competent person with the skills and technical knowledge needed to guarantee complete protection.

It is also important that PPE is stored safely and correctly in a clean environment, to avoid damage from chemicals, sunlight, heat and accidental knocks. Additionally, consider cross contamination issues arising from the workers’ private and work clothes being in a ‘dirty’ work environment, e.g. asbestos removal, or possible contamination of the work clothes with their private clothes in a ‘clean’ work environment, e.g. an operating theatre or electronic component manufacturing. Where such contamination issues exist, care needs to be taken when designing changing areas and designating lockers for storage. The PPE should therefore be stored away at night or at the end of a shift in the same condition it is brought out at the start of the working day, thus assuring a safe and productive day at work.

In summary

Due to the complexity and sheer number of types of PPE and the work activities it seeks to protect from, it is important that the correct choice is made, both in terms of protection, but also in budgetary terms. There needs to be a thorough understanding of the tasks to be carried out and the individuals involved. One of the best approaches could be a team, whereby we use the skills of the department manager, in-house safety person and of course a reputable PPE manufacturer and/or supplier, dependent upon risk. Using the team approach can help you to protect your workforce fully, yet at the same time allow them to work in an efficient and effective manner.

Published: 01st Apr 2012 in Health and Safety International