Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Personal Protective Equipment: "Oh, So That's What an Invisible Barrier Looks Like."

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Personal Protective Equipment: "Oh, So That's What an Invisible Barrier Looks Like."

Article excerpt

Following a labor dispute with the Supreme Being, Fidget and his band of dwarf robbers shattered an invisible barrier by throwing a human skull through it (the movie Time Bandits, 1981). Invisible barriers are much easier to find in the workplace because they are demarcated using lines, signs and "write-ups." These invisible barriers are not so easy to shatter.

Invisible barriers are used throughout industry to administrate personal protective equipment (PPE) programs. "Hearing protection required beyond this line." "Hard hat required beyond this point." "Safety goggles required at all times." "Respirator required in the production area."

Mountains of these citations are issued to employees who fail to wear hearing protection in quiet rooms, hard hats in open areas, safety goggles inside inactive warehouses and respirators within contaminant-free areas. Worker safety is not unique in this respect. I have seen bald men written up for not wearing hairnets in food plants. These invisible barrier write-ups are issued to make enforcement easier and, according to many, more consistent. Adding insult to overzealous injury protection, these barriers frequently result from injuries that were never analyzed for the root cause, assessed for future likelihood or reassessed after operations changed.

This all-to-common management practice almost ensures that employees will become desensitized to the importance of personal hazard identification. And frankly, it just plain ticks them off. People rarely resist counseling when they directly associate the counseling with the risk. In my experience, employees usually interpret such counseling as caring. In contrast, employees view the enforcement of invisible barriers as needless punishment.

OSHA's new PPE rule makes it clear that protective equipment should be issued "... wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards." The standard instructs us to assess the workplace for hazards when they "are likely to be present." It does not instruct us to enforce the use of PPE when we all know the hazard is not present. If my interpretation is wrong, I hereby motion for the enactment of a Culture Protection Standard.

Hazard assessments, assigning PPE and enforcing equipment use are complicated tasks that require thoughtful consideration and ongoing evaluation. …

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