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Equipped to Handle Hazards

Published: 12th Aug 2014

Overcoming the mental, physical and financial barriers to safety

Warren Fothergill stresses the importance of equipping workers with not only the correct physical protection, but also adequate knowledge to mitigate hazards.

Health & Safety Middle East magazine has supported articles related to PPE for some considerable time. In August 2010, Tony Potter’s article, Prevention is Better than Cure, delved extensively into the types of personal protective equipment (PPE) available for the hands and arms, while also summarising other aspects of workplace safety such as risk assessment. In November of the same year, Dr Tim Marsh then wrote on The Psychology of PPE, discussing the use of protective equipment and the impacts of non-compliance. More recently, in 2013 Gary Cheung identified the concept of PPE development through the ages, focusing primarily on respiratory protection. In his article, Cheung showed that some of the key ideals now upheld in industry originated from military contexts and the essential need to prolong life on the battlefield.

While the previously mentioned articles are all very interesting, there are still areas of PPE use that need further consideration. In particular, this article will address the apparent absence of knowledge regarding the importance of having the correct PPE, and the failures of risk assessments.

It is my concern that in many industries in the Middle East there is a widespread over-reliance on PPE. This worry stems from seeing a large number of risk assessments, safety plans, job hazard analyses and associated hazard effects management documents that specify PPE as a primary control.

Inappropriate PPE

Let me take you back to a scene typical of many industrial areas throughout the world. The year is 1998 and it is -3°C on a frosty December Friday, in an isolated area of the UK. The setting is a converted building in which machining of pine furniture takes place.

Having worked there for two weeks on a temporary assignment, at this time I was the site’s office manager. A telephone call informed me that I must urgently visit the main manufacturing site a couple of miles away. When I arrived the police and an ambulance were already on the scene, indicating an incident. Rumours spread that the injured party had lost fingers in an accident, potentially as a result of PPE failure.

I identified numerous failings with the company, the individual and the machinery itself. The machine involved, which was approximately 12 years old, was a rotating tool called a spindle moulder that moves at about 2,500 rpm. Looking closely at the machine I saw the remains of the so called hand protection - could it really have been wool? Yes, due to the cold, the individual was working on rotating machinery wearing woollen gloves, confirmed by another operator to be the standard practice.

Looking at the risk assessment I wondered whether it would identify the need to use gloves. Unfortunately it did. Under the heading ‘Environmental Hazards - Cold’ the control measure was listed simply as ‘wear gloves’. For the use of rotating machinery, however, best practice dictates that you should not wear gloves - as the injured party can confirm. When the worker’s hand made contact with the spindle he couldn’t draw his hand away as the wool had become entwined, entangling the fibre and his fingers. He lost three fingers that day.

Despite wearing the suggested PPE, it was the wrong type of PPE for a significant hazard that went unrecognised in the activity based risk assessment.

Some three years later, another incident involving incorrect PPE took place, this time in a print workshop where solvent based inks were being used. The glove that the company purchased was very basic, the same style as would be used when washing dishes. As such it offered no protection from the absorption of inks and solvent cleaners. Deterioration was evident after minutes, but the employees took these gloves off only four times a day. I identified issues with the gloves, having conducted basic health surveillance on hands and seen a number of the employees suffering from skin conditions such as cracking, flaking, dryness and irritation. Again, as is common, gloves were identified within the risk assessment, but an assessment of their ability to provide protection was not undertaken.

Now, both of these examples have something in common: inadequate risk assessment. This is borne from the fact that many workplaces, particularly in this part of the world, use PPE as the primary control measure. Unfortunately, many health and safety advisors, officers and supervisors in the Middle East immediately think of PPE as the key concept for mitigating risk.

Companies need to remember the hierarchy of controls. While PPE appears to be a quick fix, more thought needs to go into its purchase and subsequent use.

Furthermore, to accept that PPE will need to be used is to stop addressing the source of an issue. PPE will always have its place, but this place needs to be the last line of defence.

For a while in the early 1990s, PPE was considered the ‘golden fleece’ for Hand Arm Vibration (HAV) risk. Manufacturers created the supposedly revolutionary anti-vibration glove, which was set to minimise the risk of Vibration White Finger (VWF). The research that went into this issue was massive, with new developments almost on a monthly basis. Indeed, many manufacturers of powered hand tools were recommending the use of anti-vibration gloves for protection against vibration emissions from their machines. These claims simply identified that the manufacturer’s glove met a specified criteria in the published standard, in other words that it simply met regulatory requirements. There was no information provided to the wearer, just that it met certain criteria.

For vibration, as with any other risk, the employer must ensure that the suitable PPE is in place ready to use either once all alternative controls are exhausted, or to be used alongside other levels of control. In this author’s opinion, anti-vibration gloves can just transfer the problem into other areas of the arm, with workers instead open to developing carpel tunnel issues.

The enforcing authority in the UK recommends against providing anti-vibration gloves for the reduction of HAV, unless the gloves are shown to achieve vibration attenuation in the specific circumstances of use. Unfortunately, no standard exists for estimating the protection afforded by anti-vibration gloves when using vibrating machinery.

In using the hierarchy, employers must consider the type of risk, as well as the properties of the PPE, taking into account any risks the PPE itself may cause. While additional harm may sound an unlikely outcome from equipment designed to protect, unsuitable PPE that is designed for different hazards or industries can easily do more harm than good. We need only to look at the previously mentioned scenarios to see how easily harm can come from using the wrong PPE.

Vroom-Jago

As evidenced in the hierarchy of control, elimination is more effective than PPE. With this being the case, why is PPE still regarded as the primary control in many industries?

At the heart of business is money. Hand and arm protection in the form of PPE is low cost, provides protection and subsequently provides value. When wearing this equipment the worker is protected – to what extent, of course, may be argued - but they are protected nonetheless. The clinical nature of putting a price on worker safety brings into question the behaviour of workers and management. Is there an understanding of the need for PPE, including why it is used, what it protects against, and the duration and frequency of exposure to the hazardous substance.

To determine the best solution, I would recommend utilising the Vroom-Jago model, focusing on a systematic questioning approach.

The questions to be raised include:

1. Is the technical quality of the decision very important? Are the consequences of failure significant?

2. Does a successful outcome depend on your team members' commitment to the decision? Must there be widespread buy-in for the solution to work?

3. Do you have sufficient information to be able to make the decision on your own?

4. Is the problem well structured so that you can easily understand what needs to be addressed and what defines a good solution?

5. Are you reasonably sure that your team will accept the decision even if you make it yourself?

6. Are the goals of the team consistent with the goals the organisation has set to define a successful solution?

7. Is there likely to be conflict among the team as to which solution is best?

These questions can be applied throughout the depth and breadth of PPE procurement, but only after considering the hierarchy of controls and once the risks are understood. Is group thinking or specialist knowledge from the worker or safety professional needed? For me, question three is the key to it all. As a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, this question, while key, is the one that personnel are likely to answer ‘yes’ with little or no justification, thereby ensuring the process is worthless.

In using PPE, protection is seen to be achieved and the receiver’s safety ensured. There is often, however, no thought given to the hazard’s source or the pathway through which this hazard will affect the worker. In many cases it seems there is simply an acceptance that the presence of risk is unavoidable and that the situation can be dealt with merely by giving the worker, or receiver, protective equipment.

Training

Once individuals have been equipped with PPE, potentially regardless of its suitability, they must then be trained in its use. Workers should be questioned on the amount of time PPE can be safely worn, whether they know how to size their gloves and whether or not workers know why they need to wear PPE. Many companies appear to offer generalised training on PPE, but how many actually tell employees what to wear, the sizes available, how they are protected or the reasons for wearing the equipment?

Along with safety glasses and boots, hand and arm protection frequently features in the typical PPE worn by workers. Unfortunately, arm protection and gloves are sometimes perceived as less vital than other safety equipment such as glasses, boots and hard hats. With this perception in mind, it’s my opinion that many workers must have limited knowledge on the factors that contribute to PPE’s effectiveness.

The following EN standards pertain to gloves alone: EN 420: 2003 - General requirements for protective gloves EN 374: 2003 - Protection against chemicals and micro-organisms EN 388: 2003 - Protection against mechanical risks EN 407: 2004 - Protection against thermal hazards EN 511: 2006 - Protection against cold EN 421: 2010 - Protection against radioactive contamination and ionising radiation EN 1149 - Protection against electrostatic properties EN 12477: 2001 - Protection against manual metal welding

Best practice

Companies should adopt best practice approaches to keep their workers safe.

Before selecting any PPE a basic assessment must be made to identify and evaluate the risk. Where possible, the risk must be reduced or eliminated by modifying workplace practice. This option is always preferable to using PPE.

Employers must inform their workers of the risks present in the workplace, supply appropriate and correctly fitting PPE that complies with the relevant standards, and give adequate instruction in its use. They should also ensure that the PPE is used only for the purpose intended by the manufacturer and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

The employer should:

Audit workplace hazards and assess the level of risk to employees

Define the properties necessary in the gloves to protect employees

Ensure that all gloves used in the workplace conform to the PPE Directive

Compare the merits of the various types of protection available

Keep full records of assessments and reasons for selecting a particular type of glove. If the risk should change in any way, for example, as a result of a new chemical or industrial process being introduced, the assessment must be repeated Enforcing authorities should have written rules for workplace situations in which the use of PPE is considered compulsory. Naturally the employer needs to comply; however, I would suggest that unfortunately not many currently appear to adhere to best practice, nor do many governments within this part of the world currently appear to be driving PPE standards.

Overview

In their previous articles for this magazine, Messrs Marsh, Potter and Cheung identified key aspects of arm and hand protection, which to this day are not considered often enough by HSE professionals. Unsafe behaviours must be questioned at every level. This clearly does not yet happen enough, as we still face hand and arm injuries that could be eliminated through a combination of knowledge, questioning and adopting the right safety cultures. The information is available - companies just need to invest the time and money necessary to ensure that it reaches personnel.

Published: 12th Aug 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Warren Fothergill