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PPE Won't Work At All If It's Conditioned to Fail

03 February, 2023

Personal protective equipment is the last line of defense, but it's also only as effective as a workplace's safety program. PPE goes beyond donning on something and moving along. Here are a few common mistakes and solutions for PPE.

Head, shoulders, knees, and toes. Personal protective equipment covers these and those.

Protective clothing, head coverings, eyewear, and other items are not about the latest fashion trend. At work, they can sometimes be a difference between going home or to the hospital. PPE goes beyond throwing something on for the sake of compliance; it's also the last line of defense.

Where should workplaces stand on PPE? It's just as sufficient as any other safety tool-but PPE is only effective if you use it as part of a thorough and well-established safety program.

Real Stories, Real Consequences

Not to be a complete downer, but there are countless stories of people who have had accidents while not wearing PPE. Some PPE items are an essential tool for a task, such as respiratory or fall protection. Yet, these items are consistently on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Top 10 Violations. Every. Year. Check out 2020's list of most-common violations, and you'll see a common theme: four of the 10 frequently cited standards are PPE related, and six are related to fall protection. Why? The answer takes a bit introspection from employers, plus a close look at employee behavior and whether everyone is working together toward common safety goals.

PPE may be the last line of defense, but it's just as important as the first. Here's an example of why: A 20-year-old carpenter was working on an apartment constructon project. While installing temporary supports for the roof trusses, he fell and landed on the first-floor concrete walkway. He suffered a skull fracture and brain injury. Falls are the most common cause of injury and death for construction workers-and working without head protection ensures tragedy.

Besides not wearing PPE, there are additional conditions that lead to PPE failure and maybe even a violation that will hit OSHA's radar. These include:

Poor Risk Assessment: If a thorough PPE risk assessment is not done correctly, workers will not know when to use it, what to use, or how to use it. Workers also need to know what PPE can or cannot do for them during their tasks. They also need to know how to put it on and take it off for safety. This is especially important in settings such as chemical handling and cleanroom manufacturing.

Inadequate Protection: A little protection sometimes is not enough. One safety tool won't cover all potential hazards, so using additional measures helps. For example, employers should place guardrails around vertical drops of 6 feet or more for fall protection. Safety nets are also helpful. Each worker should have a personal fall protection system with an anchor, full-body harness, and lifeline. Extra precautions are excellent as long as they are practical.

Incorrect Type of PPE: Body types and tasks differ. PPE must fit a worker well. It should also follow the rating system for the job. The wrong PPE can be useless in an accident. For example, a hard hat that is too large or shoes that are too tight can be uncomfortable and distracting. Also, a pipe worker wouldn't wear an arc flash suit.

Not Enough Protection: You could weld a metal pipe with just a helmet on, but gloves, boots, respiration, and fire-retardant clothing would also be beneficial. The lack of PPE, as we have seen through the coronavirus pandemic, can make a significant difference. Stock, store, and organize PPE adequately. That way, it can be restocked, tracked, and replaced as needed.

Old PPE: Inspect PPE routinely to ensure it is in good working order, is clean, and still meets the rating for the task for which it will be used. Keep track of each PPE item's shelf life and be aware of product recalls and defects. Dispose of PPE if it becomes contaminated or damaged.

Addressing PPE Safety

Like any problem, there are valuable solutions when behavior is foundational from top-level management on down. There are common behaviors that need to be countered when it comes to PPE. That takes a group effort. Some people complain that PPE is too uncomfortable. Others might believe they can work faster without it. Create a workplace safety mission that focuses on prevention and a worker's best interest. 

Any of the conditions above can create a safety gap and are not worth the risk. Noncompliance with PPE can be a problem in any industry, even though it is considered the last line of defense. PPE is a component in minimizing a worker's contact with hazards in the working environment. Reminders of this are sometimes necessary, and that's where communication comes in through supportive PPE signs, labels, and floor marking.

Workplace safety violations, worker injuries, and many other negative repercussions can be avoided when it comes to PPE. Workers and workplaces can evaluate hazardous conditions and create a safety plan that includes PPE. Once a protocol is in place, provide proper training so workers will know what is expected of them.