Workers in all industries should be able to expect that they can do their job without their health, safety, or wellbeing being put at risk. There are many ways of ensuring this happens, including designing risk out of the equation, providing training, monitoring worker wellbeing, and using correctly selected personal protective equipment (PPE).
PPE has been used widely for many years to ensure workers are not harmed by the tasks they conduct in their line of work. Yet there are certain dangers that PPE cannot mitigate, one of these being the underlying health of workers.
Worker wellbeing, once shunned and side-lined as a soft topic, is now very much in the spotlight, and it’s about time.
While already firmly established in the US, wellness schemes are now crossing the pond as slowly but surely employers across the Middle East are waking up to the notion that employee sickness – whether caused on or off the worksite – still costs the business money, and that in the long run investment in and monitoring of worker wellbeing is worth its weight in gold.
By supporting and incentivising staff into healthier behaviours such as quitting smoking, getting good rest and being more physically active, the risk of illness can be reduced before it impacts on not only the individual, but from a business perspective also on their performance at work.
Actively seeking to improve workers’ wellbeing will be key to the future of workplace safety, alongside maintaining the current established hierarchies of control. The decision of which control measure it is best to use follows a hierarchy to ensure a better protection. The first option under consideration should always be to eliminate the hazard. If the hazard is not present, it cannot cause harm. The second method is to reduce the exposure to that hazard or reduce its intensity to the employees. The third is isolation of the hazard source to keep the employees away from it. The fourth is the introduction of engineering controls.
So, taking this into account, we need to fully consider if PPE is required and how useful it is.
Drawbacks of using PPE
When PPE is used correctly, it is an effective control – workers across the world will testify to this. However, we need to be cautious about its use and ask ourselves some key questions: have we considered other ways of protecting workers? For example, have we looked at removing the risks? Also, is the use of PPE actually creating other risks and in fact making the wearers work unsafely?
It is vital that businesses realise that PPE is not the only form or method of protection against hazards. In fact, it comes at the bottom of options when choosing a control measure.
We use the PPE option when all other controls can’t be used – or can be used but do not fully protect employees.
Over the years, it has in fact been widely debated whether you place workers at greater risk when providing them with ever more layers of protection. Do we check whether workers provided with new safety PPE exhibit riskier behaviour as a result? Do they believe that their PPE offers them complete protection, so they do not need to take other precautions?
The drawbacks and pitfalls of using PPE are well documented. It doesn’t remove the hazard from the environment and only protects the user.
Workers often don’t like wearing it, resulting in many organisations struggling with worker supervision issues. Management of PPE can be resource intensive when considering how to ensure it is compatible with other clothing or equipment, it fits each individual and is worn correctly, and how it is to be maintained, kept clean, stored and replaced.
A case in the UK in 2010 involved an injured man cutting his hand when grasping a sharp object. He had been provided with a general pair of work gloves to protect him. His employer was found to have failed to take full account of the specific risks from hidden sharp objects.
“as more layers of control are implemented in our working environments we experience long stretches of stability. We may start to become more complacent and may push the envelope of risk”
This and other examples demonstrate that adopting PPE is not a straightforward choice. This leaves us to ask the question of why it remains so popular, when organisations really should be seeking to eliminate hazards or use engineering controls such as enclosure.
As more layers of control are implemented in our working environments we experience long stretches of stability. We may start to become more complacent and may push the envelope of risk.
I wanted to have a look at some scenarios in which employers will be faced with deciding whether PPE is required. For this, I will focus in particular on controlling exposure to carcinogens which are found in workplaces and have the potential to cause cancer, the focus of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) No Time to Lose campaign.
This hugely successful campaign, which launched back in November 2014 focused on three particular carcinogens: silica dust, solar radiation and diesel engine fumes. It led to organisations across the world looking into introducing controls to prevent workers being exposed to carcinogens.
In each case, it is advised that organisations seek to remove the risk first before considering PPE.
For silica dust, the main aim should be to stop silica dust getting into the air in the first place. You may be able to select a process that avoids or cuts down the dust being released, for example, taking into account silica dust control at the design stage of a construction project by planning buildings with pre-built recesses for plumbing, gas and electric wiring so there’s less need to cut or drill masonry and concrete, or getting materials cut to size off-site in a facility where it’s easier to control dust exposure.
It may well be the case that, after exploring all other controls, it is deemed that PPE is still needed. Respiratory protection is widely available.
So, how do you ensure you choose the right type of respiratory protection?
Respirators are designed to cover the nose and mouth, and filter the air to remove specific contaminants before they can enter the lungs.
There are several different designs of respirator, from a halfmask that just covers the nose and mouth, through to fullface respirators.
Many halfmasks are now designed to be disposable – they are often referred to as ‘filtering facepiece respirators’ because they are designed so that the whole of the mask is made from the filter material.
When selecting a respirator, make sure it provides sufficient reduction in exposure to protect the worker’s health and also that it’s right for the wearer, for example in terms of fit to the face.
It is of course crucial to ensure that the type of respiratory protection being used is relevant for the task being carried out.
Equally important is to ensure it fits properly, so face-fit testing needs to be conducted. Some recent research has shown that facial hair, including stubble growth, affects the protection offered by some filtering facepieces and half masks.
Exposure to the sun’s rays is a risk that comes with outdoor work. Across the world, there are huge amounts of people being diagnosed with skin cancer which can be traced back to exposure to solar radiation at work.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world. However, it is also the easiest to avoid. People who are at risk must follow the rules about controlling exposure.
It differs from other exposures as well in terms of how it can be controlled. This is because in many cases the hazard cannot be removed, unless alternatives can be found to working outdoors.
When alternatives cannot be found, other controls should be examined, including limiting exposure, for example by seeking shade as often as possible, particularly during the middle part of the day.
However, PPE does play an important role in this regard, including in the following ways:
- Covering up – it can include clothing as people are advised to cover up by wearing long, loose-fitting clothing to protect the skin from solar radiation.
- Protecting the head – workers should also ensure they protect their head, face, ears and neck. This can be done by wearing a hat, preferably with a wide brim, and sunglasses with UV protection. If you have to wear a hard hat, employees should use on which is fitted with a Legionnaire-style flap. If safety goggles have to be worn, they should have a UV filter.
- Use of sunscreen – workers should ensure they use a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher on any exposed skin. It should be applied half an hour before going outside and reapplied frequently.
Following such simple steps can significantly reduce an employee’s chances of contracting skin cancer.
Diesel engine exhaust fumes are a mixture of gases, vapours, liquid aerosols and particles created by burning diesel fuels.
Diesel fumes may contain over 10 times the amount of soot particles than in petrol exhaust fumes, and the mixture includes several carcinogenic substances, meaning they have the potential to cause cancer.
Anyone working with or around dieselpowered equipment or vehicles can be affected. Emissions from diesel vehicles like forklifts, lorries, buses, trains and tractors – particularly in enclosed spaces like workshops – can cause a problem.
Workers at risk include those working as bus, lorry and taxi drivers, construction workers, oil and gas workers, and railway workers.
Again, before turning to PPE, there are a series of controls that can be examined first. These include switching to other forms of fuel, for example gas or electric, ensuring diesel engine exhausts have filters, turning off engines when not needed and rotating jobs between employees to minimise exposure.
As with silica dust, once all other controls have been considered, it is time to look at respiratory protection. The advice for this is similar to that provided for silica dust, including face-fit testing, while maintenance is equally important.
If people don’t wear their respiratory protective equipment in the right way it won’t prevent exposure. Often if it doesn’t fit, they won’t wear it at all.
If it’s reusable, make sure that the equipment is checked, maintained and stored correctly. For reusable kit, make sure that records are kept of these monthly checks. Don’t use ‘nuisance’ dust masks as they won’t protect people effectively from diesel exhaust.
Most manufacturers will offer guidance posters showing how to use equipment in the right way.
Purchasing and using the PPE
So, as a business, you’ve to look at all of the possible controls in the hierarchy, but decide it is still necessary to have an employee wear PPE.
What is now crucial is to look at what is available and – most importantly – what is suitable for the particular situation.
Not all PPE is the same and, most importantly, price is not the only factor which should be considered when making a selection. The understanding of need is based on the outcome of a risk assessment in the workplace to confirm the need. The risk assessment will highlight the criteria of selection as it simplifies the understanding of hazards at different levels of the activities being conducted.
There are many things to consider when deciding what PPE to invest in.
The first consideration should be what types of hazards are present in a workplace, as identified through a proper risk assessment. For example, will the PPE protect against different types of hazards, including mechanical, electrical, substances and human factors like manual handling and errors.
Another consideration is whether the PPE fits the wearer. No two people are the same, but companies should try to aim for the higher population fit.
As opposed to some machines and equipment that are purchased, PPE has an excellent advantage in that it can be trialled prior to ordering the full quantities. Trials should be controlled, as in some cases some companies haven’t been able to establish the proper brand or type to purchase.
You also need to ask whether the PPE is fit for a given task. Will it, for example, actually create more hazards.
There are different ranges of protection for the same hazard, depending on the exposure time and severity of the manifestation of the hazard. Therefore, just selecting the general criteria is not sufficient.
The occupational safety and health person on site should be very detailed in understanding the severity of the hazard for a proper selection.
Once it has been decided what PPE will be bought, training will be needed on its usage, as well as its maintenance and cleaning.
Without training, employees may not know how to wear or use the selected PPE properly, thereby negating its usefulness.
In addition, if they are not fully educated on PPE, they may even decide not to use it at all.
There can be no doubt that there are times when PPE, in its various guises, is necessary to protect workers from harm.
However, it should only be contemplated by employers when all other methods of control have been considered.
Once it is decided that PPE is needed, there must be a careful selection process. Huge amounts of different PPE are coming onto the market, which complicates matters further. Cost should not be a deciding factor – after all, health and safety is an investment rather than a cost.
Following the procurement stage, testing is vital to ensure it is the right piece of equipment for a job.
Millions of working people face risks on a daily basis. There are many ways of protecting them. It is crucial that we get it right to minimise the impact of workplace accidents and work-related ill health.