Anytime there is a task or workplace that involves some kind of an environmental risk to an employee, the employer is required to provide personal protective equipment. Not only does it protect the employee from direct harm, PPE also reduces the cost of accidents, workers’ comp premium increases, and employee down time due to preventable injuries.
Personal Protective Equipment Defined
In a nutshell, personal protective equipment, or PPE, involves just about any wearable equipment that an employee would use to avoid injury while working. This can range from something as simple as gloves and an apron for a cook to a full body Nomex outfit for a firefighter. Depending on the nature of the work, PPE is inclusive of helmets, eye protection, body protection, feet and hand protection and any equipment that serves the same purpose. In addition, employers are also responsible for training employees how to use required PPE and making sure compliance is met.
All-Encompassing Term to Describe Safety Gear
PPE is a very generic term and covers a large arena of potential materials and gear. To provide standards and clarity about PPE for multiple industries, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH provides an extensive amount of guidance. This information, in the form of reports, guides, regulations and industry advisements address everything from illness to direct injury and even death situations with the most comprehensive information on PPE available.
The Different Types of PPE Equipment
Because PPE varies from industry to industry, specific types of equipment are applicable to certain types of work. Clearly, construction workers need to have helmets for head protection and steel-toed boots for feet protection. Much of this is driven by the commonality of injuries that occur in a given type of work. However, switch to a biochemical lab, and the list of PPE employees must be provided changes entirely. Lab “moonsuits” are much more likely in that case.
For the eyes and facial area near them, goggles and protective glasses tend to be the most common type of equipment. Even in office and lab work, where there is the possibility of flying debris or splashing, eye protection is a must. Interestingly, it can be just as useful in other areas of work, such as cooking, but requirements vary and most commercial kitchens don’t require eye protection.
Head and Neck Protection
Head and neck PPE is often associated with vehicles, planes and transportation that has the likelihood of throwing the employee around violently and suddenly. Race car drivers and test drivers, for example, commonly use extensive head and neck protection. However, many industries require only a helmet to avoid dropping debris head injuries.
Where there is an extreme amount of sound exposure on a regular basis, employees have to be provided ear protection. Some employers might opt for foam ear plugs, but high noise levels require professional ear muffs that encompass the entire ear. This can be seen in anything from airport tarmac work to mining and driving large, loud vehicles.
Hands and Arm Protection
Limb protection is frequently provided in the form of arm guards and gloves. People still have to be able to do their work, but leather protective material is often used to prevent immediate laceration or temperature-related injury such as burns.
Feet and Legs
In the case of feet, the protective gear is oftentimes in the form of boots with protective soles, hard toe protection, and thick layer construction to avoid laceration or temperature exposure.
Where employees are exposed to environments with hazardous material that can be inhaled, breathing equipment is a must. This may be as simple as a mask with filters or as elaborate as a full breathing system and connected oxygen tank. Further, not only is training required for operation, but the breathing equipment has to be tested regularly for 100 percent function.
In the case of continuous or repetitive exposure to harmful environments, full body protection is required. Firefighters, for example, are required to be provided body protection PPE in the form of a full suit, as well as breathing equipment when going inside a burning building. Even outside on a grass fire PPE involves a full suit, gloves, boots, helmet, goggles, face shroud and a personal shelter for emergency cover from a fire blast.
Examples of Professionals Who Use PPE
There are a lot of industries and workplaces the require the use of PPE. Some are very obvious, and the employees wear the equipment visibly. Some are subtle, but PPE is still required. Examples include:
- Soldiers – military personnel are often equipped now with helmets, body armor for rough terrain and bullet impact, and high grade suits to protect from the elements. Compared to a few decades ago, soldiers of yesteryear might as well have not worn anything.
- Police – law enforcement in full uniform regularly wear bullet protection vests as well as proper footwear and elastic, durable uniforms. They also carry PPE equipment designed for carrying their tools and communication devices.
- Firefighters – the municipal firefighter wears a full PPE outfit that literally protects him from heat exposure from toe to head. The wildland firefighter wears a similar, lighter outfit for heavy manual work in high heat conditions and rural terrain. Both wear critical, life saving equipment for emergency use to get out of harm’s way.
- Factory workers, miners, and construction workers – Given the high risk of limb and head injury these three types of workers almost always wear gloves, helmets, goggles, ear/sound protection, and high grade work boots.
- Chemists and lab workers – Due to the nature of extreme contact or adjacent exposure, lab work frequently requires full contamination protection and sometimes even “moonsuits” to avoid becoming sick from materials at the workplace. Even at a minimum, lab workers have to wear goggles, plastic gloves and breathing protection to avoid splash and inhalation harm.
Business Benefits from Investing in Protective Equipment
Aside from immediate health protection, PPE has multiple benefits for employers. While there is a cost to provide it and maintain compliance, employers have to remember that a single employee’s serious injury can typically cost much more than the total cost of PPE for the workplace for a year. So accident avoidance is a key financial target to remember when evaluating PPE procurement.
Reduction in Workplace Injury
The best cost reduction for workplace injury is prevention, and PPE is a key, tangible method by which that can happen. An injury that never happened is one that never generates any kind of cost, medical bills or higher workers compensation plan premiums. Prevention saves thousands and even millions of dollars for companies.
Reduction in Staff Turnover
By reducing staff turnover due to injury absence, as well as protecting people at work, companies can enjoy greater productivity due to increased experience and performance by trained workers who know their jobs. Trained workers who have no down time from injuries often results in fewer mistakes on the job.
Reduction in Sickness Absence
Downtime due to medical absence is a big loss in payroll. Injured and sick employees still have to be paid, and that means lost payroll costs with no productivity return. By reducing injuries and sickness with PPE, more payroll time is spent productively.
Helps Avoid Prosecutions, Fines, and Legal Fees
The big savings, of course, comes in avoiding lawsuits and legal costs from injured employees seeking recovery. Additionally, if there is a serious injury, there is sure to be a regulatory investigation into the matter which will likely trigger penalties for the company. Those can be painful to the accounting bottom line.
What Are the Legal Requirements of PPE?
Essentially, businesses are required to protect their employees from preventable harm that the average person would consider a duty to provide. That, of course, varies by industry. Obviously, one is not going to give a computer programmer a helmet and gloves, but proper desk equipment for ergonomics might be appropriate. The legalities hinge on what is considered normal protection for the given industry at a minimum. In some cases, the details are spelled out; government agencies like police and fire departments are required by law to provide certain equipment. Private companies have a far more gray area to work in.
Determining Which Types of PPE your Business Needs
Whatever is the proper package of PPE for a company, it should be viable, durable and functional PPE that serves the protective purpose properly. There should be a comfortable fit that doesn’t also become a cause for injuries such as ill-fitting trousers that cause tripping. Multiple industry standards exist for different professions that can be used as guides for basic minimum PPE to be provided.
Ensuring Proper Long-Term Use
Keep in mind, employees can be notorious for not maintaining their equipment or continuing to use PPE that needs to be replaced. It is the employer’s job to regularly inspect provided PPE and replace it as necessary.
Equipment Should Fitted to Each Employee
Employees should not share PPE from one shift to the next. While one might think this saves money, it can create injury risks due to faster wear and tear and ill-fitting changes. Every employee should have his or her own allocation of required PPE for a job.
Equipment Should be Maintained in an Orderly Fashion
Regular inspections are necessary for employer-provided PPE. This means physically inspecting and checking equipment to make sure it’s not broken, worn, cracked, torn, or losing function in any way. And equipment should be regularly replaced every two years or so or when it becomes obviously worn down.
A PPE Program Should be Established to Educate Employees
It’s not enough to provide employee PPE equipment, employees should also be taught proper use, fit and wear of the PPE. This means providing an instructor-led training with visual guidance how to use the PPE correctly.
Yearly Audits Should Take Place to Check Equipment
As noted earlier, PPE equipment should be regularly checked for safety compliance. The best way to do this is to schedule audits of equipment and perform visual checks of the PPE. Where it is found to be deficient, it should be replaced right away. Checks should not be warned in advance; this allows inspectors to get a true picture of compliance and where improvements are needed in PPE provided or training if necessary.