We may be cutting back, but we are not cutting back on safety.” The economic slowdown in many sectors, including oil and gas, has shrunken current workforces and budgets, with companies of all sizes enforcing mandatory austerity measures. To keep recordables low, safety professionals seek better protection for their staff through improvements to processes, safety culture, and PPE.

After identifying the most efficient, long-lasting protection their staff needs, pros often face an uphill battle to get the procurement approved. PPE recycling might help safety pros juggle the cost of performance PPE, increased corporate environmental responsibility, and shrinking budgets.                       

Shrinking budgets

In an EHS survey, several respondents suggested money is more important to corporate heads than safety -- until there is a catastrophe. Shrinking safety budgets could put some EHS programs — and worker safety — at risk. In fact, in 2010, 15 percent of EHS leaders reported that their safety budgets had decreased. This figure snowballed to 23 percent in 2011 (Hozier, 2012). 

Cheap PPE

One answer to shrinking budgets is to buy cheaper PPE. But two factors are often overlooked.  One is the effect of the new PPE’s lifespan. If the quality of the product goes down with the price, as is often the case, there might be additional trips to the tool crib for replacements -- and additional shipping, intake, and disbursement administration to facilitate PPE that has to be replaced more often.  The second factor: the preventable injury claims that could have been avoided with a higher quality PPE.  After the initial trials, many safety departments scrutinize the real cost vs price of economizing on PPE. 

Increased longevity, protection, & productivity

The other alternative to resource constraints is to invest in premium PPE.  The safety benefits of using the latest technology to prevent injuries before they happen can still make the accounting department unhappy.  But let’s examine these investments. PPE with increased performance, longevity, and protection can make measureable differences in productivity and safety culture. With fewer trips to the tool crib to replace worn-out PPE, employees have more continuity to their work cycles.  Also, improved PPE is a measureable sign of the company’s appreciation and respect of their employees.  High-performance PPE may even prevent avoidable injuries by providing additional protection to workers through new engineered materials and designs. The evolution of safety eyewear provides a textbook example of how employee acceptance of PPE can increase responsible PPE donning and an improved safety culture.

Cost-benefit analysis

Fact: Used PPE is collecting in landfills at astonishing rates, with environmental disposal procedures ignored as companies tighten their financial belts. But do you know that soiled PPE can be recycled, increasing lifespan by up to 300 percent? By removing contaminants such as oil, grease, dirt and grit, which weaken protective fibers and seams, thousands of dirty PPE can be re-used with a direct impact to corporate profitability.

The cost of high performance PPE can be aged over a longer life cycle to match or beat current wear and costs. Implementation of a PPE recycling program has the potential to allow safety departments to procure better performance PPE, outsource ecological disposal, and make the accountants smile like April 16th, all while keeping their employees safer. 

If you are unfamiliar with the commercial recycling process, here is a brief outline of steps involved:

1. Test sample of used PPE is sent to recycling facility. Attention to detail on the fibers, chemical exposures, etc. will culminate with a recommendation for laundering or even dry cleaning. Not all PPE can withstand the laundering or dry-cleaning process. Shrinkage may result, but these results differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. 

2. Collection bins are placed at PPE site where employees place previously “disposable” PPE

3. Bins are transported at agreed intervals to recycling facility

4. Documentation confirms receipt of bin and contents

5. PPE is recycled

6. Unacceptable PPE is separated from usable lot

7. Each PPE is individually scanned for metal traces prior to sorting

8. PPE is sorted by size and bundled for easy access

9. PPE is returned to site with a new lease on life

10. Cleansed PPE is free of contamination and may be disposed of as ordinary waste when it can no longer be recycled. 

Saving money

PPE recycling companies claim their clients have saved between 30 and 50 percent on the cost of new PPE by recycling it. When workers exchange soiled items for recycle or new merchandise, it eliminates waste and overhead costs, resulting in a direct increase in profits.

Decontamination of protective equipment ensures that the equipment is fully utilized, allowing equipment to be used cost effectively. By introducing high-performance PPE, partnered with laundering, lifespans can increase threefold.

Saving nature

In a time when the government has renewed its focus on chromium-6, a leather tanning chemical, with new strict regulations, there is an increasing ecological concern with landfill contamination from PPE. Experimentation with new detergents and cleaning techniques reduce stress on the environment by reducing PPE waste in landfills, which in some cases represents 20 percent of total landfill. Because PPE recyclers use environmentally friendly chemicals and adhere to strict guidelines for hazardous waste disposal, companies can often pass through some of the environmental disposal responsibilities to the recycler. And businesses that responsibly dispose of hazardous waste may be eligible to receive tax credits.

Average wash cycles

Each site will vary, but here are some industry averages on PPE glove recycling of different types:

Cotton: 1

Leather: 2-3

Cut & Sew: 3

HPPE: 5-7

Final thoughts

There no longer needs to be a cost battle about choosing the right protection. PPE recycling offers solutions to both cost-over-performance and environmental waste disposal issues, while adding increased productivity and profitability. High performance PPE, which can withstand the recycling progress without shrinkage or seam disintegration, is key to the successful implementation of a recycling program. Be sure the gloves you are using are able to withstand recycling without harm, shrinkage or pulling apart at the seams. While each site has different goals, recycling gives safety professionals a way to maximize safety while minimizing cost.