There’s personal protective equipment designed for every workplace.
By Frank Leggett
Personal protective equipment (PPE) can literally save your life. It covers an incredibly wide range of items from sunscreen and earplugs to safety harnesses and respirators. It’s found on worksites, shop floors, factories, hospitals and any workplace where worker health and safety needs to be protected. It’s a ubiquitous part of the working life of tradies and an essential part of hundreds of different careers. Its purpose is to protect the wearer from associated risks they might find in any workplace space. Its importance cannot be overstated.
A person conducting a business or undertaking is required by law to provide adequate PPE protection for anyone under their employment. There are some variations from state to state and region to region but Safe Work Australia’s Work Health and Safety regulations spell out the requirements employers must follow in regard to PPE. Basically, an employer must provide well-fitted, suitable PPE in good condition.
Of course, the employee also has an obligation to wear the provided PPE—and not just because there’s a chance of injury. “If the workplace provides PPE and you choose not to wear it as an employee, there are substantial on the spot fines from Work Safe or Work Cover inspectors,” says Christopher Douglas, national channel manager at UVEX Safety. “Of course, the biggest repercussion is potential physical damage to a person’s body but fines can be as high as $6000 for an individual employee.”
HIERACHY OF CONTROL
Some people find it surprising that PPE is actually the last line of defence in worker safety. There is a system for controlling risks in the workplace called the hierarchy of control.
“When a risk is identified, the best thing to do is move the person away from the vicinity of that risk,” says Brad Rodgers, R&D manager at Paramount Safety Products. “Questions need to be asked, such as: Is it possible to substitute that risk out of the environment? Can you engineer machinery or protection levels around the risk? There are quite a few levels in the hierarchy of control, but PPE is the very last level of protection.”
The structure of the hierarchy of control moves from most effective to least effective:
- Eliminate the hazard or risk.
- Reduce the risk through substitution, isolation or engineering.
- Use administrative controls to minimise exposure.
- Personal protective equipment.
Determining the correct PPE for a particular workplace is a complicated process. Everything is covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 which also spells out the legal requirements for an employer to protect the employee. Work Health and Safety Regulations must also be followed in the workplace while PPE manufacturers should follow the various manufacturing standards applicable to their products.
The first thing a workplace should do is a risk analysis. “There’s professionals who can help in this area,” says Adrian Phillips, managing director at Maxisafe. “They’ll look at the risks associated with the tasks and make recommendations. Companies employed to do a risk analysis of a business will provide safe working procedures for every operation. Within that safe working procedure would be PPE recommendations.”
THE RIGHT FIT
For PPE to work effectively, it is critical that it fits correctly. PPE needs to be fitted to the individual; it’s not a one size fits all situation. Some PPE such as hard hats and glasses are adjustable; some, such as boots, come in a variety of sizes but some, such as respirators, need to be fitted to the individual to ensure a good seal. PPE also needs to be inspected, maintained, and stored correctly.
“All PPE should be comfortable to wear,” says Todd Robertson, general manager at Bunzl Safety. “Employees will be wearing it all day at their respective tasks and, if it’s not comfortable, there is a risk of them taking it off and substituting it with something that’s not fit for the task. This is a dangerous situation where injury can occur.”
As Australia’s workforce becomes more multicultural, manufacturers are making PPE to fit different face profiles and hand sizes. Even though it is no longer manufactured to solely suit a European profile, fit testing still needs to be done to ensure PPE will work correctly. Correctly fitted PPE is not just for user comfort but to ensure the PPE works effectively in minimising the risk for injury.
TRAINING IN THE USE OF PPE
It’s important all employees are trained in the correct way to wear and use PPE. Most manufacturers will come onsite and provide that training when PPE is ordered. There are also dedicated training organisations to provide training services.
“It’s one thing to be given PPE but it’s essential that it’s used and fitted correctly, and fit for purpose,” says Brad Rodgers. “Some people make an assumption that they know how to put on a hard hat, that they know how to put on a respiratory mask, but that’s not always the case. There’s a legal obligation for the employer to ensure that staff are trained in the correct use of PPE.”
Often, users want to change, swap parts or wear their PPE differently. However, a hard hat worn backwards does not offer protection. Products are tested in a standard way and while it might look cool or be more comfortable, it will not protect the user from injury.
While employers need to provide training in PPE, users must take the responsibility to use their PPE in the way in which they were trained.
REPERCUSSIONS OF INCORRECT USE
If PPE is used incorrectly and someone is injured, there will be an investigation into each case and the severity of the injury. Ideally, no-one should get injured at work.
“When an accident occurs, it will be looked at by the appropriate authorities and the company,” says Adrian Phillips. “They will identify why the accident happened and how it could be prevented next time. However, no amount of PPE will stop an accident happening if the wrong thing is done. A cut resistant glove won’t stop a circular saw.”
An employer will always bear some responsibility for an injury in the workplace. However, if an employer has provided the training, the education and the right PPE to suit the tasks, but the employee has not followed those instructions, then they’re just as responsible.
It’s the employer’s responsibility to train them, but once trained and correctly fitted to the right PPE that’s fit for purpose, then it’s up to the person wearing it to use it correctly whenever needed.
PPE is broken down into different categories, including head, eye, face, hearing, respiratory, hand, foot and height safety. We will explore each of the main categories and investigate the proper use, maintenance, and purpose.
PPE gloves are designed to protect the hands from three types of hazards.
- Mechanical hazards such as cuts, abrasions, crush injuries and splinters.
- Chemical hazards caused by exposure to chemicals in all forms.
- Thermal hazards and burns from exposure or contact to temperatures either too hot or too cold.
“In some cases, the hazards cross over,” says Michael Riggall, business product and development manager at uvex Safety. “For example, tasks with the risk of cut, impact and chemical exposure will require gloves that provide multiple levels of protection.”
Effective hand protection requires the gloves to fit the wearer well so they are able to perform their tasks effectively and efficiently. Dexterity and comfort are priorities. Care, maintenance and storage are also important, particularly when gloves are used for chemical protection.
The technology behind protective gloves has advanced in recent years, leading to the development of different types of fibres that offer a higher protection, particularly for potential cut injuries. Whereas 20 years ago everyone was given a pair of leather gloves, these days there are specific types of gloves for specific tasks and associated risks.
It also needs to be remembered that cut resistant does not mean cut proof. Australian standards follow European standards and apply to different risks associated with the hands. The first and overarching standard is mechanical risk EN 388. That certification means that a glove has been tested for abrasion resistance, cut resistance, tear resistance, puncture resistance, and impact protection.
“Other certifications relate to different hazards,” says Adrian Phillips. “EN 407 is for protection against heat and fire hazards. EN 511 is for protection against cold. EN 374 is protection against chemical risks. We are dealing with a very vulnerable part of the body and it’s important that the wearer uses the right type of glove for the right type of job.”
EYES & FACE
Eye and face protection usually consists of two elements—safety eyewear and face shields. They are used to protect from flying particles, chemical splash or mechanical and natural radiation. Many industries use this type of protection including mining, construction, manufacturing and healthcare.
“It’s important that eye and face protection fits the person’s face and offers the correct amount and type of protection,” says Christopher Douglas. “Requirements change from person to person and business to business.
Someone doing a job in a cold work area will need different eye protection to someone doing the same exact job in a hot work area. The fogging properties and airflow of the glasses would be different for a start.”
Dusty environments may need goggles that are fully sealed on the face. Safety goggles provide levels of protection against splash. Normal safety spectacles, as per the Australian standards, are rated against medium impact. They all have different features and benefits that allow the user particular levels of protection.
“There’s also a range of different lens colours available,” says Brad Rodgers. “A clear lens will be usually worn inside while a tinted lens will be worn outside in sunny areas. Polarised lenses are available along with other options depending on the type of risk present.”
Face shields are generally used to provide impact protection. They are a critical when avoiding sparks and highspeed particles in the air It can be important to double up on PPE at times. People who work in high risk environments like grinding, often wear a double layer of protection such as safety glasses underneath a face visor. If a grinding disc breaks at high speed, you need your eyes and face well protected from impact.
If you wear prescription spectacles, it’s possible to have the lenses of safety glasses or goggles manufactured to your prescription.
Hearing protection should be taken very seriously. While injuries to hands will eventually heal, exposure to elevated noise levels for extended periods can cause permanent irreversible damage. Any workplace where noise levels are above 85 decibels requires some sort of hearing protection.
The two main types of hearing protection are earplugs and earmuffs. Earplugs are inserted into the ear canal, earmuffs enclose the ear. Earplugs are a cost-effective and disposable hygienic option. Earmuffs offer a reusable level of protection that can bring cost benefits over a long period of time.
Once again, selecting the right PPE and using it correctly is essential. “I’ve been onsite where employees have been using earplugs for a long time,” says Christopher Douglas. “I’ll ask them to put their earplugs in, and more often than not, they’re not inserting them correctly. Most people require training on how to roll down the earplug, insert it into the ear and wait for it to expand.”
Getting the right amount of noise protection is a bit of a balancing act. It’s not a matter of automatically choosing the highest level of protection. “Choosing a maximum amount of decibel protection can actually become a risk,” says Todd Robertson. “If you’re driving a forklift in a noisy environment, you can’t just cut out all noise as you need to be able to hear what’s happening in order to avoid an injury or hitting somebody.”
Respiratory protection ranges from a simple face mask to a full-face mask with powered air. The higher the risk, the better level of protection you need.
Highly toxic environments require a supplied air system that is not reliant on filtering out contaminants in the air.
Respiratory protection only works if it fits properly. In all levels of respiratory PPE, an adequate seal has to be made between the mask and wearer’s face.
When working with substances such as asbestos or silica, this is critical. “Respiratory products, as per the Australian standard, require the wearer to be fit-tested to their particular respiratory protection device,” says Brad Rodgers. “This means if the wearer has a beard or facial hair, the correct fit is impossible. The sad fact is that users have to lose the beard or not do the job.”
Training in the correct use of respiratory PPE is essential and it should also be cleaned and stored correctly. “We provide kits with reusable airtight containers,” says Adrian Phillips. “After use, you place the PPE in that container. It must be cleaned with alcohol wipes before wearing it again.”
Even something as simple as a disposable face mask has properties that must be understood. Disposable respiratory PPE will generally only protect against physical particles in the air, and there’s a different micron range for each product. A reusable range can have replacement filters that need to be disposed of, cleaned or replaced at regular intervals.
When talking about head protection, you’re talking about hard hats. A lot of science goes into how they’re designed and the materials from which they are constructed. And they work. “Many people who have worn a hard hat and had an impact from above know that their hard hat probably saved their life,” says Brad Rodgers. “The harness within a hard hart is designed to act as a shock absorber to reduce the force that’s transferred to the head and neck.”
Hard hats are also versatile and allow the wearer to add accessories like cap mounted earmuffs and visors. The components within can be easily replaced should they start to deteriorate. Bump caps, usually made from a molded plastic shell, are designed to prevent bump-related injuries in workshop environments.
There are three categories of footwear designed to protect workers:
- Safety Footwear that contains a toe cap that can protect against an impact of 200J and 15KN of compression
- Protective Footwear that contains a toe cap that can protect against an impact of 100J and 10KN of compression
- Occupational Footwear that has protective features but does not contain a protective toecap
The other qualities of protective footwear are:
- Slip resistance
- Protection from sharp objects such as nails
- Impact injuries on the arch area of the foot
- Impact protection for the ankle
- Water resistance for working in wet environments
- Cut resistance
- Antistatic footwear for protection around volatile environments and sensitive equipment
- Electrically insulating properties
- Protection against hot and cold working environments.
“There are many workplaces with hazards that can be mitigated by appropriate workplace footwear,” says Dr Caleb Wegener, head of product management footwear at uvex Safety. “In fact, I would say any worker who’s not sitting at a desk could benefit t from appropriate workplace footwear.”
Footwear should be reviewed regularly to ensure it’s in good condition and is not excessively worn. It’s recommended that footwear be replaced when the tread is worn or cracked, the upper has cracks, the seams are split, or the insole or midsole have pronounced deformation. It’s quite common for workers to wear footwear long after it should have been replaced.
In the past, work boots were designed to be hard and tough. Often, it would take months to wear them in. Today, boots should off er protection and be comfortable from the first time they are worn. Good work boots should protect the feet without causing cramps, blisters, ankle pain or irritation.
Height safety PPE includes ropes, harnesses and lanyards. Anyone working at heights needs to have undertaken a Working At Heights training course. They need to be trained in the correct use of all products, including putting it on, taking it off and inspecting the product before every use. If height PPE is not correctly worn, connected and inspected for wear and tear, the employee is literally putting their life at risk.
“There are very strict standards on how often height safety equipment is to be professionally inspected,” says Todd Robertson. “For example, webbing products such as harnesses should be independently inspected every three months and by the user before and after every use. There’s also a minimum requirement for a certain amount of force to which you must be attached. An anchor point for a single person should be able to hold the weight of a car.”
If a harness is required, it must be worn correctly with the applicable lanyards and rope lines. The employer must train employees in the correct use and operation of height safety PPE—but the main responsibility is on the user.
“If there’s an accident, the current laws place the responsibility with the employer,” says Adrian Phillips. “However, the employee is dealing with their own body. They must look after it and be responsible.”
It’s the employer’s responsibility to provide PPE that’s suitable for the nature of the work or hazard and is also certified to appropriate standards, individual sizes and fi t requirements.
They must provide training to the employees on the correct use, maintenance, and storage to ensure overall compliance.
It’s the employee’s responsibility to use the PPE provided in the correct way in accordance with the training, and not intentionally damage or misuse it in any way. Any damaged PPE needs to be reported and replaced.