Improving a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) program requires change that both employer and employees can believe in. An effective way to achieve this is to involve not only top management, but all employees in creating and implementing the program. Involvement can range from all employees identifying hazards in their work areas to selected employees evaluating different types of PPE. Those who have a voice in choosing PPE generally are more highly motivated to wear it.

PPE selection and use
Employees may even contribute to your written safety plan, documenting PPE requirements as well as the specific hazards and control measures at each worksite. PPE requirements for each task should include type of PPE purchased and employee training on the use, inspection and maintenance of the PPE. Ongoing supplements to the plan should include records of these actions as well as observation and correction of violations, disciplinary/retraining measures, and response to any accidents.

Prioritize risks
The most effective PPE plans prioritize the risks. For example, construction safety professionals may want to focus additional attention on protection from the four most common construction site hazards that cause fatalities: falls; being struck by an object; being caught in or compressed by equipment, objects or collapsing materials; and coming in contact with electric current.

Adopt the best standards
While OSHA sets minimum legal requirements in the U.S. for occupational health and safety, its regulations are dated. Stay ahead of the game by keeping up to date on proposed changes or the higher standards of a variety of well-respected safety organizations. If you are operating in the global marketplace, you may want to investigate standards such as those set by various Canadian provinces and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Although regulatory changes often take many years to effect, it can be profitable in both economic and human terms for companies to adopt stricter data-backed standards, particularly in high-risk areas and areas in which OSHA regulations are especially outdated.

The following overview of selected PPE categories references OSHA’s minimum requirements for general industry workers within 29 CFR Subpart I — Personal Protective Equipment and addresses selected recommendations of other professional safety and standards organizations. It also highlights a few PPE trends and issues to consider.
  • Fall protection: The revised fall protection standard of the American National Standards Institute, ANSI Z359-2007, although not yet adopted by OSHA, emphasizes the importance of comprehensive, managed fall protection programs (Z359.2). It requires a written plan to protect those working four feet or more above the ground in general industry, five feet above in the maritime industry and six feet above ground in construction. The new standard recommended a few improvements in fall arrest systems (Z359.1) and introduced new safety requirements for work position and travel restraint systems (Z359.3) and for assisted rescue and self-rescue systems, subsystems and components (Z359.4). (For a summary of details, see “Managing Fall Protection,” ISHN, July 2008.)

  • Head protection: Hardhats, addressed in 29 CFR 1910.135 and ANSI Z81.1-2009, are a familiar symbol of safety. However the second most common cause of death and injury in construction, for example, continues to be incidents in which a worker is struck by something. Safety professionals need to assess whether employees require ANSI Type I or II head protection against lateral and/or vertical impact, electrical shock, heat and sparks. Type II protection can protect employees from the lateral impact of flying objects, which cause a greater proportion of injuries than most people realize, as well as from the vertical impact of falling objects. Helmets with cool, colorful graphics seem to increase employee compliance. Secure fit, style, comfort and quality also influence compliance and the effectiveness of head protection.

  • Respiratory protection: This critical area of PPE protection (with minimum PPE requirements found in 29 CFR 1910.134) requires careful analysis of alternatives that will improve safety and consequently longterm economic benefits to the company. In evaluating employee exposure to various chemical contaminants, consider comparing your air-sampling test results with the threshold limit values (TLV®) published by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH®), which often are lower values than the Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) published by OSHA.

    It’s also important to re-evaluate your respiratory protection program on a regular basis. Any changes to the environment such as higher humidity in summer, manufacturing processes or number of employees at the jobsite may affect the contaminants, their concentrations and the change-out schedules for your cartridges.

    In addition, weigh ways to increase comfort and user acceptance of respiratory protection, for example, with use of well-designed silicone masks rather than less expensive thermoplastic or rubber facemasks. Perhaps switching to a powered air purifying or supplied air respirator will increase both worker protection and productivity.

  • Eye and face protection: Contemporary and sporty styles of safety glasses and goggles have helped improve worker compliance with eye protection. In trendy styles, side shields may be part of a wrap-around design. Anti-fog, scratch-resistant, static-resistant, anti- UV coated and tinted lenses improve functionality of eye and face protection (addressed in 29 CFR 1910.133 and ANSI Z87.1-2003). Be on the lookout for a new ANSI Z87.1 standard in 2009. It will be an extensive revision with more details than can be discussed in this article.
Ongoing training is a critical part of correct PPE usage. Training by manufacturers, OSHA outreach personnel and independent safety training companies can be supplemented by even ten-minute periodic toolbox training or tailgate reviews and updates. Bring coffee and doughnuts, and employees will be quick to gather. Involving families in the safety culture — with safety poster contests for children or safety demonstrations at company family day or safety day events, for example — can influence workers to set good examples and improve compliance.

The bottom line
Balance investment in the strictest standards possible with both the substantial human and monetary costs that can be avoided by preventing worksite accidents. While the time, effort and budget required for an effective safety program may seem large, evaluate the costs of non-compliance. OSHA estimates $170 billion in “business costs associated with occupational injuries ... expenditures that come straight out of company profits.”

Among cost-saving benefits of maintaining a safe and healthy worksite, OSHA’s Web site lists “lower workers’ compensation costs, reduced medical expenditures, smaller expenditures for return-to-work programs, fewer faulty products, lower costs for job accommodations for injured workers and less money spent for overtime benefits.”

Indirect benefits enumerated are “increased productivity, higher quality products, increased morale, better labor/management relations, reduced turnover, and better use of human resources.”

When all such benefits are considered and when both top management and all employees participate in creating the program, they are more likely to believe in and support an improved culture of safety.