Approach to PPE Compliance [Nov 2010]

Why do people not wear PPE when they know it’s the last line of defence and could save something as important as their sight, or even their life? I mean, we all know that the typical employer doesn’t like to spend money on employees unless they have to, even at the best of times. And it’s been a while since it was the best of times!

Yet, even though trained thoroughly in its use, often employees don’t wear PPE, wear it badly so it’s not effective or just really resent wearing it when they do. (So you get an element of what’s known as ‘presenteeism’ – they are there and doing what they’re paid for, dressed as required but with such bad grace they might as well not bother.)

At a glance it might make little sense but the reasons why are actually very simple and fall into three broad categories:

• Lots of others don’t

• No one important seems to mind too much

• It’s annoying

At first glance you might think that at least two of these can be impacted by exhortations to “take more care,” but I’ll try and show why, by and large, they can’t. Indeed, it’s actually seldom about the individual person.

The good news is that because the reasons why are quite simple, when you really look at it – so are the solutions.

The reasons why lots of others don’t

Imagine you went to a very fancy reception for the first time. What would you do? Can I suggest that the first thing you’d do is to find a corner and watch what everyone else was doing too, as you’d feel uncertain about your unusual surroundings. They are all sipping fancy drinks you’d never normally touch. But you look around and see high-powered business men, politicians and princes all sipping away. What would you do when you’re offered one yourself? Would you really say: “Take this horrible fancy stuff away and fetch me something sensible”?! Quite…

What we all do in a new situation is to look about to see ‘what’s what’ and all the studies show that it has a massive impact on our behaviour. Indeed, it’s held that we learn about 5% from formal presentations; 10 to 20% from material we can take away and study like this, but up to 80% from those ‘significant others’ around us. If this wasn’t true, then any delinquent youth who ever watched West Side Story would up and quit their gang the next day. Another example: Told on picking up a hire car to “not even think about speeding on this island” will hold little water if, 10 minutes later, you join the motorway to find that the inside lane is a little over the speed limit, the middle lane 20km over the speed limit and the outside lane is total mayhem. Most of us will be in the middle lane – and speeding – within minutes.

Indeed, the very best definition of safety culture is ‘what’s typical around here’ – literally what is unremarkable because when it happens it’s not remarked on. This is important as a safety culture is comprised of 1001 day to day behaviours such as the way a tool box talk is delivered, as well as if PPE is worn. It isn’t just about the mission statements and documents. These are vital of course, but very much ‘necessary but not sufficient’.

What this means is that if you’re a new start or a sub contractor and 50% are non compliant, then you can do whatever you want without standing out. However, if we can reach the fabled ‘tipping point’ of 90% or so, then you’ll be under a lot of psychological pressure to comply and fit in with the majority. On the flip side, if only 10% are compliant and none of these are the experienced or charismatic ‘natural leaders’, then you can pretty much guarantee that few, if any of the new starts or sub contractors will comply, regardless of any training they just had.

So in summary, anything less than 90% compliance is a real disaster. (Please now look out of the window and conduct a simple head count).

No-one important seems to mind much

As above, the most important people  to the typical worker are their colleagues. These are closely followed by their immediate supervision and their direct bosses.

Of course the ‘bigger’ the boss, the more likely the workforce will react badly to a transgression. For example,

I had a client cite where the visiting ‘big boss’ refused to wear his hard hat on a site tour. It took minutes for local secretaries to talk to their contacts at HQ and find out that it was because he wore a wig and was worried about his dignity. Two things flowed from this. The first was that before he’d even left the site he had acquired the nickname “the twit with the toupe!” The second was that the whole PPE process suffered a big set back that we struggled for years to overcome.

Even on a more mundane, every day level, studies show that even with the front line management population, compliance doesn’t need to be at least 90%, it needs to be 100%. Anything less and it’s a green light to all employees to follow suit.

In addition, as well as all the front line supervision modelling the correct PPE themselves at all times, it’s also vital that they send the right cues too. Here are some classic ways to weaken a safety message:

• Mentioning PPE in training or during a safety brief by saying “I’ve been told to remind you…”

• Walking past an incidence of non compliance and not saying anything or agreeing “OK, but just this once.” (Has there ever been an instance of that being ‘just that once’?)

• Saying “put your PPE on but get a move on with the job” when you meant to say “get a move on with that job but put your PPE on.” The word “but” in the middle of a sentence means subconsciously “ignore everything I’ve just said, the important stuff is coming up.” Because it works at a subconscious level neither party may be aware of how the message was conveyed.

• Getting the voice tone or body language wrong when talking about PPE. Studies show that only 5 to 10% of a communication is in the words spoken.

The rest is in the voice tone and body language – and this is found to be universally true. So even if we say all the right words in the right order, we can convey a lack of ownership very easily… and the workforce will take the message ‘well they are just covering their back by going through the motions, but actually this is optional’.

The esteemed safety consultant John Ormond says: “You get the safety culture and the safety standards you want – no more and no less.” (He’d sing the Spice Girls’ first hit at this point in a presentation “what I want, what I really, really want… zigger zig ah”).

So one of the key reasons why workers don’t wear PPE in spite of the training and despite what the mission and vision statements might say is because effectively, though we grumble and nag a bit, we let them.


So, in summary, the classic case of someone hurt on a given day, or made ill in later life by lack of PPE compliance is as a result of the following: wearing the PPE was uncomfortable or slowed down work, so several people stopped wearing it and management’s response was less than firm…

Enhancing compliance – follow up and coaching for success

I’ve said above that because the ‘why’ is quite simple, the ‘what you do about it’ is simple to describe too. I’ll now try and summarise the key elements of a robust process that minimises the impact of human factors.

Selection of PPE

I’d argue that it’s essential that management involve the end user in the selection of PPE whenever this is viable. There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious – as the people who will have to make a living wearing it they are of course best placed to identify salient issues of comfort and practical usability.

I wish I had a pound for every time someone’s said “it’s really bloody obvious to anyone with half a brain that this was going to be a problem, and I did try and tell them but no-one listened …”

The second is that people the world over are all hugely subjective and hate to be told what to do – but like to be asked for their opinion. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that people are hugely awkward and subjective and that massaging people’s interpretation of events and issues can pay big dividends! Imagine, for example, that someone drives around a corner too quickly and nearly bumps your car, but before you can shout and swear you realise it’s a neighbour you’re fond of. Would you find yourself saying “Oh it’s you! … (and smiling) You little terror you… You want to be more careful! Anyway, are you still OK for Friday?”

Are we that tolerant and forgiving of a stranger?

Basically, if we are excluded from a decision-making process that affects us, we are predisposed to reject it and find fault, but that same subjectivity can work in our favour if we have been involved in the decision.

Coaching and training

Perhaps the most underappreciated model of individual motivation is Vroom’s. The model suggests that any individual’s motivation to do anything is a factor of three things multiplied.

What do you want me to do and why? X How do I do it properly? X How much the outcome is valued

Importantly, because these three factors are multiplied together, not added, a weakness anywhere gives a poor score overall. A basic audit of any PPE process may well uncover one or more of the following:

• Workers have been told what to wear but not with a clear explanation of why, so are free to be subjective with their ‘management are just being over cautious’ thoughts

• Workers are not sure how to do it properly, so are inclined not to bother doing it at all

• Workers are not praised for doing it correctly and/or (as above) not admonished for not doing it correctly

It’s known that whatever behaviour requested of training, if it isn’t considered career effecting in the smoke shack or canteen, then it isn’t likely to happen for long. Though usually we are applying this model to safety leadership training re manager’s challenging and analysing behaviours, the same is true of PPE.


Most behavioural safety trainers will stress how important it is to use praise to reinforce behaviours and this is because praise is about 20 times as effective as punishment in changing behaviour. Imagine your boss tells you:

“Those areas of weakness we discussed in last year’s appraisal. I just wanted to say that I’ve noticed a significant improvement since and indeed I am looking forward to giving you your next appraisal in two months. Well done.”

How much more positive would you be in work for the next eight weeks based on that simple comment? On the other hand how much criticism would this manager have to give you to match the impact on your day-to-day behaviour? Can I suggest they’d have to follow you around all day shouting at you? So as the fabled One Minute Manager book says – go out and “catch someone doing something right.”

Praise and coaching made easy – the ‘1 in 10’ technique

Often front line managers find the basics of coaching and praise difficult, but there are some techniques that can help, and perhaps the very best is the ‘Rate Yourself on a Ten Scale’ technique.

The basic technique is to ask a person to rate themselves on a ten scale for PPE compliance. Most people will say something between 6 and 8, and the important thing is not to say “Only 8? Why aren’t you a 10?” but to ask why they aren’t a 0.

When they explain what they do well we can nod and murmur and praise by making such comments as “excellent”, which also breaks down barriers and builds rapport. Then we can switch to coach mode and ask (even if we already know the answers): “But what could you do to get up from that 8?” We are now well placed to have productive and constructive discussion with, in best coaching tradition, the worker being led to make their own suggestions for improvement.

Fingers crossed behind the back psychologically

Sometimes at the end of such a discussion we are still left with a need to get a promise to wear PPE in future. Sometimes, of course, we need to take decisive action with no preamble at all.

An interesting research finding is that if we look a person in the eye when we make a promise and use the “I” word then we are three times less likely to break that promise than if we can get away with looking at the floor and mumbling something like “Yes, OK… will do.”

It’s because we all have internalised values of integrity and basically if you look at someone and say “I will” or “I won’t”, then your integrity is on the line. Getting away with a vague mumble is like having your fingers crossed behind your back (so in Western culture at least therefore not a ‘real’ promise).

An Ideal PPE Process

The basic principles of Heinrich’s Triangle are well known by most H&S professionals now. Basically they state that that there is a direct relationship between the number of unsafe acts and accidents and illness. Therefore the greater the number of people not wearing safety glasses when they need them, the more eyes will be lost. Similarly, the greater the number of people not wearing face masks or respirators correctly, the greater the number who will suffer from illnesses such as lung disease in later life.

We can never tell who it will be but given the right data we can accurately predict how many. It’s remarkable how often we can find front line workers who have never had this basic principle explained to them in a user friendly way. The very best sessions are not given by management or (sadly) consultants, but are given worker to worker using local examples and case studies.

So tying all the above together a Human Factor approach to PPE compliance would cover:

• The end users being heavily involved in selecting PPE (so that usability is maximised and the possibility of false economies minimised)

• The training given covers a section on why as well as what and how. (Ideally, this why section will be given by fellow workers referring to Heinrich’s Triangle and will use local or industry specific case studies)

• All management and leaders comply themselves

• Front line managers will systemically follow up this course with praise or criticism as appropriate so that?compliance (or not) always has a consequence on the day

If we do these then our Tipping Point  of 90% compliance will be achieved  (at the very least) and the whole process will be self-sustaining. We like to think that once you understand the psychology behind what’s going wrong it’s quite simple to turn it around to your advantage.


Dr Tim Marsh PhD; MSc; CFIOSH; CPsychol; SFIIRSM

Tim Marsh, then at UMIST, was one of the team leaders of the original UK research into behavioural safety (in construction) in the early 1990s, is one of only a few Chartered Psychologists who are also Chartered Fellows of IOSH and is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety and safety leadership. Tim was awarded a President’s Commendation in 2008 by the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management and was selected to be their first ever ‘Specialist Fellow’ in 2010.

As MD of the consultancy Ryder Marsh he has worked with more than 300 major organisations around the world, many of whom have won both open and in-house awards for their subsequent success. He has presented to the European Conference Board and was an expert witness at the Safety Culture and Management of Change expert forums at the Cullen Inquiry (Ladbroke Grove).

He runs the Behavioural Safety and Pro-Active Safety Culture courses for IOSH and created the award winning Affective Safety Management concept for the IIRSM. The book of the same name is now Europe’s best ever selling safety book. He has chaired more than a dozen conferences on Behavioural Safety in the UK and has given key note speeches at major conferences in places such as Dubai, South Africa, Malaysia and India.

As well as being a widely published writer, he has worked with media such as the BBC and written and produced many safety training videos such as Drive Smarter and the extensive Safety Leadership series, as well as such as There’s Always a Reason and Safety Watch.

Ryder-Marsh (Safety) Ltd 21 York Road Chorlton Manchester M21 9HP

E: [email protected] W: T: 0044 161 881 8471 or 0044 161 660 3845 (dvd studios)

Ryder Marsh provides:

• Cultural and Systems Assessment

• Senior Management Assessment and Coaching

• Culture Change Framework and Systems

• Safety Leadership Training

• Behavioural Safety Process and Project Training

• Accident Investigation Training

Published: 10th Nov 2010 in Health and Safety Middle East