My friend and coworker, Larry, was working with a pyrophoric product that would ignite if exposed to the atmosphere. When he opened a control valve in a line that had just been repaired, he was engulfed in flames and ran to a safety shower. When I arrived and helped Larry remove his flame-resistant clothing, I noticed he was only burned in areas where his skin was not covered. It was then that I realized the value of protective clothing.

Despite examples like this, workers often resist wearing flame-resistant clothing and other garments. How you roll out a protective clothing program will influence whether employees will accept it or reject it, so let’s take a look in this article at avoiding common management mistakes.

What happened here?

Examine the following scenario and see if you can find the mistakes made by management:

Returning from work after a two-week vacation, Nick noticed a sign by the front door of his office that read, “All Personnel Entering This Building Must Wear Fire–Resistant Coveralls.” He opened the door, but a security guard stopped him from entering. Nick called his boss and was told that the coveralls represented a new rule to make employees safer, and that everyone except management must comply.

Nick asked if there was a problem with office workers being burned. His boss said no office workers had been injured, but a janitor had been burned when working on a steam radiator. Since there was steam heat throughout the building, it was safer to have all employees in protective gear. Nick asked if visitors would have to wear coveralls; his boss told him no because it would be too costly.

Nick was told to go to the storeroom to get his new clothing. The storeroom didn’t have his size, so he received two pair two sizes too small. He was assured that the appropriate size would be ordered. He was also told to take the coveralls home for laundering when dirty, and to be careful about the type of detergent he used.

A few weeks later the weather turned cold and Nick asked for a flame-resistant jacket, but was told that the company would not be providing jackets.

Common mistakes

The problems that Nick ran into are easy to spot:

  • His company didn’t take time to let employees know that they were going to be required to wear protective clothing;

  • There wasn’t a sound reason for asking employees to use protection — the only injury happened to a janitor, not an office worker;

  • The right sizes weren’t in stock; and

  • Some articles of clothing weren’t provided.

Smoothing the transition

When you ask someone to wear clothes other than their normal attire, they often rebel. It’s essential for your clothing plan to make sense to employees. These guidelines should make the transition to protective gear a bit smoother:

1. Document the need. Establish a clothing policy only if you have related hazards in the work areas. Employees are more apt to accept a policy if they see that using clothing could have prevented previous injuries.

2. Be realistic. Only require protection to be worn in areas where it is needed. Hands-on workers may complain, but deep down they know that it makes their jobs safer. While it might be easier to create an across-the-board standard, it is not always practical or cost effective to require everyone to wear certain kinds of protective clothing at all times. Costs can escalate if you furnish every engineer with five or six pairs of special clothing for infrequent visits to the work area, or keep a variety of sizes on hand for visitors.

3. Keep an adequate inventory. Inventory levels are not always easy to determine, especially for clothing that must be laundered or decontaminated. In this case, you should take into account that half of the garments could be in the laundry at any given time. Be sure to provide an adequate number and have all sizes available. Also, be prepared to outfit workers in colder weather.

4. Provide laundering services. I think it’s imperative to have a laundry service handle garments such as flame-resistant clothing. First, the clothing may be contaminated and shouldn’t be taken home. Some companies provide clothes washers and dryers on site for laundering uniforms. Plus, flame-resistant clothing must be laundered correctly to retain its protective qualities.

Sidebar: Overcoming resistance

  • Alert employees to your program in advance

  • Demonstrate why protection is needed

  • Point to injuries that could have been prevented

  • Review relevant regulatory requirements

  • Don’t overreact to potential hazards

  • Make sure all employees covered by the policy are at-risk

  • Make it easy for employees to obtain protective gear

  • Stock plenty of sizes to meet demand

  • Be careful about contaminated clothing leaving the worksite