In an ideal world we would be able to design hazards out of jobs to keep workers 100 percent safe in all situations. But given the scientific, practical and economic constraints of the workplace, this is a pipe dream at best. The fact is, we need to rely on mitigation strategies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) to provide a safe work environment.

Almost every workplace relies on PPE such as safety gloves, shoes, helmets, respirators and fireresistant clothing. A major policy decision confronting management is how to select the specific PPE for their employees. Does management decide what is best and require workers to use particular makes and models, or does management set the general requirement for PPE and allow workers to decide which brands and styles are best?

Weigh the options
There are advantages to letting workers make decisions about PPE. When workers are happy with the style of their cool safety glasses or the fit of their safety shoes, they are more likely to wear them. This in turn leads to a safer work environment.

But there are consequences to this approach. Management is usually much better informed about how to match PPE to specific job requirements and risks. Most workers, after all, are busy maintaining expertise in their job skills and have little time to devote to gaining expertise in safety analysis and PPE design.

This is especially true with complicated PPE such as respirators that need proper fit, routine filter replacement, and preventive and recovery maintenance as well as other upkeep to ensure effectiveness. Failure to perform any of these tasks makes the PPE ineffective and can even make PPE use counterproductive if workers erroneously think they are protected and hence, feel free to assume higher levels of risk. In addition, there are so many available brands, variations and models that choosing the right one for the right need can be overwhelming.

The same is true in the area of safety eyewear. One retailer lists 50 brands, each with dozens of models and sizes. If you think it is tough for a safety professional to navigate the selection process, how do you think a worker feels when forced to select his or her own eyewear?

While your company’s safety professional may struggle to keep up with the latest features of dozens of types of PPE, at least that is part of his or her job. The worker, on the other hand, is focused solely on getting the job done. When workers are overwhelmed by the choices available, they may either delay the purchase or get the wrong one, both of which defeat the purpose of having a PPE program in the first place.

Consider these examples:
  • A luxury resort in the Caribbean hired Frank to build cabanas on its beachfront. An experienced carpenter, Frank always wore safety eyewear when using power tools to protect against airborne wood and metal fragments. He knew to select eyewear with side protection because fragments can come at an angle or ricochet.

    He was very conscientious, but his experience didn’t forewarn him that out in the Caribbean air his eyewear would fog up in seconds. He never thought to acquire anti-fog lenses or defogging wipes. Since it was only a week-long contract and out in the middle of nowhere, he couldn’t just run down to the local supply store and replace his glasses. So he dealt with the situation in the best way he knew how. Every minute or so he stopped, took off the glasses and waved them around until the fog cleared.

    Since this cut his productivity, he began delaying this ad hoc defogging longer and longer each day. By Friday he was somewhat used to working with the glasses half-fogged. Until, of course, his decreased visibility caused him to misread a clearance and lose two fingers from his left hand. So much for the great gig working on a tropical isle sipping daiquiris.
  • Henry was a coal miner who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia. His father, uncle and brother were all coal miners, and he expected that at least one of his sons would become a coal miner as well.

    This background made him very aware of the risk of black lung. Even as a small child, he was accustomed to seeing his dad’s respirator and understood that using it was necessary to reduce the risk of black lung. The coal mine operator assumed this family history had caused Henry to become intimately familiar with the filter replacement schedule and other minute details of respirator use.

    But awareness and expertise are very different things. While Henry always wore his respirator, his desire to be the most productive miner he could be sometimes led him to delay replacing his filter, especially when the replacements were on the opposite side of the mine and could take an hour out of his workday to replace. No one seemed to notice until one day his persistent cough turned into the very black lung he had grown up fearing.
Rely on safety professionals
What do these stories tell us? The message is not that workers are irresponsible and can’t be trusted to select and monitor their own PPE use. It is more fundamental than that. On a day-to-day basis, workers are focused on being the most productive they can be.

Ad hoc PPE use is a recipe for injuries, illnesses and rising costs. For this reason, safety professionals are needed somewhere in the loop to specify the right PPE and to establish mandatory procedures for use and maintenance. Senior management needs to decide how this should be implemented, whether through a permanent safety unit, consulting services, or cross-trained mid-level managers.