PPE: Eleven common mistakes made by employers

One of the top safety issues for most employers is the purchase of personal protection equipment (PPE). The market for PPE has grown significantly and the options can be daunting. While a common goal is to keep workers safe by finding the most appropriate PPE for the demands of the tasks and the hazards faced, costs, sustainability, comfort, and employee acceptance also influence the decision.

Here are eleven common mistakes made by employers:

  1. Relying on what’s worked well in the pastWork processes change, the compliance environment is more demanding, and PPE improves. While employers generally rely on their PPE suppliers to stay ahead of the curve, it’s not enough for suppliers to offer a full range of effective, cost effective equipment and innovative technologies. Suppliers should be strategic partners – understanding your unique processes and hazards and how your employees work in your facility. They should also be helpful resources in navigating new standards and regulations such as the fall protection standards from OSHA and new equipment guidelines from ANSI.In addition to working with you to identify the most appropriate PPE, their services should include testing the equipment in your workplace, training for managers and employees, and evaluating the effectiveness of the choices. PPE should perform well over time, be used properly by employees, and improve business performance and safety.
  2. Seeking the “one product” solutionWhether it’s trying to simplify the purchasing process or provide the highest level of protection, well-intended PPE choices can produce unintended results. Cut-resistance gloves are a good example. When there is an increase in cuts and lacerations on the job, the tendency is to go to a glove that addresses the greatest cut hazard in your operation, with the thought that a higher cut rated glove will also protect less significant hazards. However, the PPE must match the task and risk and a higher ANSI cut level may not provide the necessary dexterity and create too much hand fatigue to do the task at hand. Rather than focusing on the glove, the entire process for hand safety needs to be examined.
  3. Failing to consider PPE part of an overall strategyA processing plant was experiencing a high number of slip and fall injuries. The company took an exhaustive look at flooring conditions, floor mats, and housekeeping behaviors as well as testing various footwear types. Protective footwear is designed to reduce hazards and improve safety, but it can’t provide total worker protection. PPE should be viewed as a supplement to engineering or job controls that can eliminate or minimize hazards and to workplace practices and procedures aimed at enhancing safety.
  4. Lacking a plan for everyoneWhile most employers have moved beyond the “one size fits all” approach to PPE, there are still areas that warrant improvement. Most PPE has been designed based on average male body measurements and offer limited options for women. But the workforce has changed and savvy suppliers are addressing the issue. This was recognized in the new ANSI standard 107-2015 that addresses some of the long overlooked issues with Hi-Vis apparel and accessories, including size and fit. The updated standard became less design-restrictive allowing for smaller sizes to accommodate smaller body frames without compromising protection, a welcome change for women.
  5. Failing to consider comorbidities, including obesityThe obesity epidemic has affected most industries, yet many are still using PPE and ergonomic tools that were designed for workplace populations that were more fit. Falls from height are common in construction. Much of the fall equipment is typically rated to only 310 pound, although there is equipment available that exceed this limit. The sobering fact is the percentage of workers on the job whose total weight (body weight, tools, and PPE) exceeds the design specifications of some fall protection equipment.
  6. Not involving employees in the selection processWhen selecting PPE, there are many factors to consider – regulatory compliance, contractual agreements, type of exposure, cost, durability, and appropriateness. But if your employees won’t wear it when it is needed, day in and day out, all your effort is for naught. Top reasons employees do not wear PPE are discomfort, poor fit, unattractive, feel it is unnecessary for the task, or don’t have time. This is why it’s important to involve employees in the testing and selection of equipment.
  7. Getting caught off guard by fashion trends or cultural eventsFrom full-on beards to trimmed moustaches, facial fringe continues to be a top trend in 2017. This trend plus popular cultural events such as “Movember” or “No-Shave November” – the male health counterpart to the popular Susan G. Komen pink ribbon campaign – pose safety concerns for employees who use respiratory protection. Even if an employee can pass a quantitative fit test using a PortaCount, the NIOSH requirement states that you may not have facial hair that interfers with the seal of a facepiece. Employers need to be aware of trends and make sure their written program includes relevant policies and that employees are trained, monitored, and understand the requirements for worker safety.
  8. Failing to maintain and replace PPEA supervisor may try to look good and save money by telling workers to use chemical protective gloves for a week, rather than the specified one day limit, a worker is protected from falling debris by his hard hat and deems it his “lucky” hat and wears it every day, workers keep reusing earplugs inside their hard hats, harnesses are not cleaned nor stored properly, and so on. These workers have failed to maintain and replace PPE as needed and have put themselves at risk. Employers need to know when to replace PPE and when to purchase PPE versus having it tested for repeated use. And test tools need to be up to date. Establishing a regular schedule of testing and replacement helps ensure PPE is not used past its prime.
  9. Don’t enforce useLack of enforcement is one of the main reasons why employees don’t use PPE. PPE compliance does not happen in a vacuum; it’s dependent on work practice control and manager buy-in. When a hazard cannot be engineered out, companies rely on safe working practices and PPE. Failure to enforce use is widespread across many industries. One example is healthcare. Despite an increase in sharps injuries and exposure to blood and bodily fluids, many health care workers are not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, according to the International Safety Center. It found that fewer than seven percent of workers exposed to blood and bodily fluid splashes reported using eye protection, although about two-thirds of the workers’ eyes were splashed. Collecting data on use can be a wake up call for many companies.
  10. Using technologies for surveillance under the veil of enhancing safetyWearable technology, which involves gathering data via smart sensors, is growing in prevalence in PPE and can help managers understand where workers are and when they are in an unsafe condition or place. The possibilities seem endless – from helping ergonomists to engineer risk out of tasks to a smart construction helmet that increases user efficiency through connectivity with the control room. But, it can raise privacy challenges, particularly when used for surveillance or other sensitive issues. Employers need to be upfront about what data is being collected and how it will be used, and have a written policy.
  11. Inadequate trainingTraining is not one and done and, in some cases, there seems to be the expectation that employees already know PPE protocols, afterall much of it is common sense. There are many points that need to be covered in training and reinforced in implementation from donning to doffing PPE:
    • When employees have to use
    • Limitations of protection
    • How to inspect
    • How to put on and adjust
    • How and when to remove safely
    • How to care for and store
    • Useful life
    • How to replace worn or damaged PPE
    • Where to dispose of PPE that might be contaminated by hazardous substances

    A trained supervisor or manager should verify that PPE is being utilized according to protocol.

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