Personal protective equipment (PPE) has the potential to keep employees safer, but unfortunately, many people think about PPE the wrong way. It’s important to recognize that there are many types of PPE, that PPE isn’t meant to be the totality of your safety program, and that PPE must be used properly if it’s going to be effective.
In this guide, we’ll correct some common misconceptions about PPE on job-sites and direct you to more comprehensive, more responsible use of it.
PPE Is More Than Just Hard Hats and Goggles
PPE is formally defined as “any devices or clothing worn by the worker to protect against hazards in the workplace.” Despite this, most people simply imagine PPE to be a term that exclusively refers to protective clothes and accessories like hard hats, goggles, boots, and gloves.
It’s true that these types of PPE are important, and in some cases vital, but PPE can also include:
- Guardrails and handrails. Proper guardrails and handrails can minimize the risk of a fall and provide workers with greater stability.
- Ladders. Different types of ladders offer different load capacities and are used for different types of tasks; make sure you provide your employees with the proper ladders for the job.
- Scaffolding. Scaffolding is designed to be highly stable and reliable, enabling workers to work at height and reach hard-to-reach places without putting themselves in unreasonable danger.
- Respirators. Respirators can allow employees to breathe normally without jeopardizing their lung health by breathing in particulate matter.
- Mobile tech. Mobile technology, like biometric scanners that can record metrics like heart rate and body temperature, is also gaining popularity on job-sites.
Not all types of PPE are appropriate or necessary for all workplaces, but it’s important to broaden your definition and provide employees with the equipment they need to remain safe.
PPE Is the Last Line of Defense
Some employers also treat PPE as the ultimate, or only way to keep employees safe. But realistically, it should only be your last line of defense.
Before resorting to PPE, you should focus on:
- Hazard elimination. Hazard elimination is the first line of defense on a job-site. This is the process of identifying, eliminating, or reducing exposure to hazards. For example, scaffolding and guardrails can mitigate the risk of a fall, but if you can avoid working from a great height entirely, that’s even better.
- Preventative controls. Preventative controls are policies and procedures, as well as adjustments to the job-site, that minimize the risk of an accident. For example, simple barriers can prevent employees from entering a dangerous area.
- Administrative planning. Through administrative planning and proper management, you can also minimize the risk of an accident. For example, you can rotate working responsibilities to prevent any one group of employees from facing disproportionate risk.
- Education and training. It’s also important to have a program in place for employee education and training. To keep your employees as safe as possible, they need to be aware of all the potential risks and hazards on your job-site, they need to take workplace safety seriously, and they need to properly understand how PPE is meant to be utilized. Without this knowledge and experience, PPE isn’t going to do much good.
- Culture and attitudes. Similarly, it’s important to maintain a workplace culture that encourages safety. Everyone, from your leaders down to your newest employees, needs to treat safety as a top priority.
PPE Isn’t All the Same
It’s important to acknowledge that PPE isn’t all the same. Many types of PPE come in different varieties and are designed for different purposes, offering different levels of protection or different features to address unique hazards. Additionally, many types of wearable PPE need to be appropriately fitted to the user, or else they won’t be able to do their jobs.
OSHA defines clear standards for many types of common PPE. Whenever procuring PPE, make sure the equipment you’re purchasing conforms to these standards and properly fits.
PPE Isn’t Perfect
Even the best job-sites, with perfect safety controls and ample PPE for everyone, can suffer accidents. Accordingly, you can’t afford to assume that your workplace will never have an accident or an injury just because you have an appropriate PPE plan in place. You also need to have controls for workplace accident reporting, so your employees feel both comfortable and motivated to officially document any issues that arise.
The Best Approach to PPE
If you want the PPE in your workplace to be fully effective, you need to understand the full range of dynamics in play. PPE is a broad category, it’s designed to be a last line of defense, it’s only part of your safety program, and it’s far from perfect.
With these elements in mind, you’ll have the knowledge and ability to keep your job-site safer.