Hard hats, steel toe-cap boots, and high-visibility clothing, all ubiquitous items and all seen on worksites all over the world. All three of these items are classed as PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment, items of clothing and equipment that workers wear to protect themselves from the effects of harm, caused by the hazards of their workplace.

People like to look good and feel good through what they wear, but of course, some people are much better at it than others; I certainly am one of those people who has no fashion sense! How does the clothing worn for safety, differ from that of everyday life, however? Is there much of difference, if any at all? How is protective clothing a useful tool in the workplace? And how do we decide what is suitable for our exact circumstances? This is the topic that we are going to discuss in today’s article. Let us begin by looking at protective clothing and why it is considered PPE.

“when assessing hazards and risks in the workplace, one of the go-to weapons we can use is called – The Hierarchy of Controls”

Hierarchy of Controls

When assessing hazards and risks in the workplace, one of the go-to weapons we can use is called “The Hierarchy of Controls”. This is simply a list of control measures for safety, in order of effectiveness. I have highlighted the hierarchy below, explaining each stage, and giving an example of how to use it.

Eliminate

This is where we totally get rid of the hazard. If we can do this, it will cause us no problem. An example might be that we no longer use a hazardous substance or material on site.

Substitution

This is where we swap something that is harmful, for something that is less harmful. An example of this would be paint. One of the main ingredients in paint used to be lead, but this has now been replaced with solvent. Whilst the solvent can make us sick, it is not as harmful as lead, which is a known carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance).

Engineering

This is where we employ technical measures to help deal with hazards. Examples of this include placing hard barriers around a drop to stop people falling, or Automatic cut-off switches to prevent the overfilling of a liquid storage tank.

Administration

This is where we would put the control measures that are paper-based. This can include, but is not limited to, SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), Training Programmes, and PTW (Permit-To-Work) systems. The main downfall with these controls, however, is their heavy reliance on people to follow what they say, otherwise they are pretty much just ink and paper.

Personal Protective Equipment

This is our last line of defence, mainly because the use of PPE does not reduce the likelihood of harm from occurring. It only reduces the severity of harm. Coveralls, gloves and goggles are some examples of PPE.

According to the hierarchy, protective clothing would fall under the category of PPE, as it does not reduce the chances of people being hurt. It merely mitigates, or lessens, the outcome. So, whilst it is technically our last consideration, protective clothing should not be shunned altogether, as there are still many benefits of wearing and using it.

Workwear specifics

What exactly these benefits are, depends upon the item of clothing we are talking about, how it is designed and manufactured, where it is supposed to be used (both in terms of the working environment, and the part of the body it is to be worn on), who is going to use it, and so on. Some items of clothing are fire-resistant and/or fire-proof. Others would help prevent the build-up of static electricity, useful for working on sites where there are flammable materials and atmospheres. Some are for keeping people warm or cool, depending upon the temperature they are working in. So let us look at this from the aspect of different body parts, and some of the protective clothing that can be deployed in our workplaces to protect these parts.

“No Time To Lose campaign has plenty of information on protecting workers from the harmful effects of the sun”

Feet and toes

For our feet and toes, we usually would immediately think of footwear including shoes and boots. These could be shiny, polished shoes for an office; steel-toe capped boots for a construction site; or wellington boots for a fisherman. However, there is another piece of protective clothing that can be used on our feet… socks. Thick woollen socks can be worn to protect our feet against extremes of cold. I personally wear “Dive Socks” to help stop the skin of my feet from rubbing against my fins when I SCUBA dive, as the hard plastic could cause me to have abrasions and blisters on my toes, feet and ankles. These socks are made of neoprene, and whilst offering physical protection, they will also provide warmth whilst diving in cold waters. As another example, you can even buy flame-resistant socks for welders and fire-fighters!

Legs

Legs can be covered with a simple pair of trousers for an office, but more hazardous workplaces would require more “technical” solutions. Sports people use guards, particularly on the front of their legs, to protect against impact and injury (for example, footballers and their use of shin-pads). Some clothing could incorporate knee-pads, particularly useful for those workers who are kneeling for a lot of their work. Leggings can be made of UV-resistant material, ideal for protection against the sun’s rays, and the Ultra-Violet Radiation that is given off by them. The IOSH (Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Professionals) Campaign “No Time To Lose” has plenty of information on protecting workers from the harmful effects of the sun, and other cancers caused within the workplace. www.notimetolose.org.uk

Body

For our body, thick-padded clothing, or clothing made of thermal materials, would again be good for warmth against cold environments. Clothing that is “aerated” is designed to allow air to flow through the material it is made of, keeping the wearer cool, very useful for working in hotter conditions. Full-body coveralls are very useful for protection against spills of substances, particularly when doing dirty jobs (such as vehicle mechanics and engineers working with oils, greases and lubricants). Some of these are washable and re-usable, though some are one use only (i.e. disposable coveralls for working with hazardous substances, such as asbestos or radioactive materials). Coveralls can also be flame-resistant or flame-proof, mitigating the effects of burns and fire on the wearer. Some coveralls can even be made of materials that prevent static build-up (as mentioned earlier in the article), with even the zips and buttons being made up of plastic, rather than metal. High-visibility strips can also be found on these coveralls. For those who do not use coveralls, jackets, coats and vests can also be “high-visibility”, produced in a range of colours (including orange, yellow and green). This is good for allowing the wearer to be easily seen, by vehicles in particular, so we can avoid collisions, and know where the workers are. Again, useful for people who work in dark workplaces, people who work during the night, and so on.

Hands and arms

Our hands and arms are very important, as we use them to hold tools and equipment, and do many, many of the tasks that we are required to perform in the workplace. Here, most people would think of gloves. There are so many types and designs of gloves, that we could have an article just dedicated to this piece of clothing alone! From simple woollen gloves for keeping hands warm, to thick elbow-length gauntlets (for welders, and those who handle hazardous substances), there are thousands of makes and types of gloves. People using chainsaws, bench-mounted saws or those who use any sharp-bladed object can use chainmail gloves, to protect against the risk of cuts and amputations. Scaffolders and Motorcyclists can employ armoured gloves to help protect their hands from injuries as a result of objects striking their hands, impacts with surfaces, or crush injuries from heavy objects landing on their hands and fingers. Fingerless gloves can also be employed where the user requires protection, but may still need the ability to “feel” what they are doing. I have a pair of these to protect my hands from sharp teeth and fins when handling fish, but I can still feel my fishing line when trying to tie knots.

Arms again could be covered with UV-resistant material for sun protection, and chainmail sleeves for protection against sharp objects. Incorporated elbow pads would help protect against striking and other elbow-debilitating injuries.

Neck protection

The neck is often a part of the body that a lot of people tend to miss out. A lot of people will know that where a neck or spinal injury is suspected on an injured victim, the patient has a neck-collar (or neck-brace) fitted. Even a simple collar on a shirt though, can offer protection from the sun. Scarfs, neck guards and gaiters can all be employed, to protect our workers neck from various issues. In a more extreme example, those who participate in motor-sport can often be seen wearing an armoured neck-brace below their helmet, to help prevent or limit head and neck injuries in the result of a crash during racing. When you consider Roman Grosjean’s 125 mph (220kmh), “67g” crash at the 2020 Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix, I am sure you can appreciate the need for this type of equipment. The crash was so violent that his car went through the safety barrier and split in two.

“does the wearer have significant facial hair? If so, this can prevent a seal between the mask and the skin of the face”

Head protection

The head alone has many different complex parts, all of which need protection. We can protect the individual parts, or the whole head, depending upon the circumstances. Our eyes can benefit from the use of various forms of goggles and glasses. Be careful though, often people believe these are the same thing, or they mix them up. Goggles wrap around the face and form a seal around the whole of the eye area. They are ideal to protect the wearer from contact with hazardous substances, particularly splashes of liquid, and dusts. However, they have limited ability (if any at all) to protect the wearer from impact and shrapnel. Glasses are more often for use against the UV rays of the sun, or are “impact” resistant. These however may not protect against liquids and dusts, as the glasses sometimes do not sit flush against the wearer’s face, allowing a gap where the contaminant can come into contact with exposed areas. When only one eye needs protection, eye patches are often used. However, this is normally where a person is already receiving treatment for an eye-related injury or ill-health condition.

Snoods and masks can help protect the wearer’s nose and mouth from sunlight, and exposure to harmful substances. How effective these are will again depend upon many things. What is the substance? How small are the particles? Is the mask re-usable? Does the wearer have significant facial hair? If so, this can prevent a seal between the mask and the skin of the face, again allowing an entry pathway to be present for a substance to get to the wearer.

Protecting the whole face can come in the form of face-shields. These are commonly seen being used by welders, to protect them from radiation produced by the welding-arc. With the current world situation, we have also witnessed the use of medical face-shields, or “splash-masks” both inside and outside of hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, vaccination centres, and so on. Some people have even made their own, but caution should be noted regarding workers creating their own “protective clothing”. This is because it may not offer the protection it needs to, may not meet legal requirements, and in some cases, could even pose a danger to the user. Needless to say, this should at least be discouraged within your organisation, if not banned outright. Bear in mind that as the organisation, you have certain legal duties, including providing the necessary equipment to your workforce for their work. Article 16 of The ILO (International Labour Organisation) C155 Convention on Occupational Health & Safety for example, states that:

“Employers shall be required to provide, where necessary, adequate protective clothing and protective equipment to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, risk of accidents or of adverse effects on health.” 

Many of your own countries Health and Safety Law is based upon this ILO Convention, so it is important you read about what is required by your local government and Health and Safety Enforcing Authority. Examples of these authorities include OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the US, the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) in the UK and so on.

Hard-hats, bump caps, hair nets, and head guards are all examples of protective clothing that can protect the wearers’ head. Again, what you need depends upon the exact circumstances of work, and so on. A simple baseball cap may be enough for providing protection against the sun, whereas military personnel would need ballistic helmets to try and help save them from injury or death, as a result of being hit by shrapnel from a grenade, or a sniper’s bullet.

“your first “port-of-call” should be to conduct a risk assessment, to know what particular hazards you have”

Summary

So in conclusion, there is a world (literally) of protective clothing that we can employ to help to protect our workforce and colleagues. As always, your first “port-of-call” should be to conduct a risk assessment, to know what particular hazards you have. This will save you from buying clothing which you do not need, or which will not be effective. Do not forget also that the workers may need to have “fit-tests”, and our workers are all different shapes and sizes, so be careful when being offered “one-size fits all” products. Take the time to get everyone properly fitted out, so there are no issues further down the road. Also, remember that protective clothing is one “layer” of protection. Use it in conjunction with the hierarchy of control that we discussed earlier. Prevention is better than mitigation. If you are unsure, as I always recommend, seek the help of consultants, experts and protective clothing suppliers. You should also consult the workforce directly. Buy samples of what you think you would like to use, and trial it with the workforce, so that they can provide valuable feedback on the comfort and effectiveness of what you are proposing to use. Do not just look at cost. Protective clothing can help us look good and feel good, but ultimately, it should give us the confidence that “we will be good”, as we are protected in the workplace.