Magazine article Occupational Hazards

The Safety Manager's Guide to Personal Protective Equipment

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

The Safety Manager's Guide to Personal Protective Equipment

Article excerpt

Choosing the right personal protective equipment can be a complex task. This guide can help you choose equipment that keeps workers safe and healthy, and makes your facility more productive.

Do your employees wear personal protective equipment? Chances are, as in thousands of workplaces around the country, each day. they don hard hats, safety glasses, steel-toe boots, gloves, respirators, uniforms or other items designed to protect them from physical and chemical threats in their environment. Despite its widespread use, however, PPE is underutilized and frequently misused. This guide is designed to help you and your employees make the best use of this important tool for worker protection.

Personal protective equipment is "anything that a worker can wear or carry or use to protect himself or herself against some hazard encountered while doing work," according to Dan Shipp, president of the Industrial Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), based in Arlington, Va.

The traditional public health approach to protecting workers is that the first line of defense against safety and health threats are engineering controls or the substitution of a nontoxic material. When engineering controls are not available, administrative controls, such as cycling workers through jobs to reduce exposures, is the next choice. PPE is considered the last line of defense.

But the reality of the workplace offers more complex choices about PPE use. For some jobs, engineering controls are not feasible. PPE often provides the best choice of protection in jobs that are mobile or of short duration. PPE also makes sense as a backup to engineering systems in some cases. And, for many jobs, PPE provides a far more economical alternative than other means of protection.

"The hierarchy of controls is a very sensible solution to protecting workers, but it also anticipates a stable workplace, where the production process is not going to change over time," said Shipp, adding: "How many manufacturing operations can afford the ultimate in engineering controls? In a lot of cases, they can't."

A first step for determining how to deal with hazards is to conduct a risk assessment in your workplace. Contributing Editor Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., suggests this eight-step process, for example, for choosing protective clothing:

1. Conduct an exposure assessment. What potential hazards does a job present?

2. Evaluate other control options. Are engineering or administrative controls feasible?

3. Establish the performance characteristics required. What physical and chemical resistance properties are required?

4. Determine the ergonomic constraints. What stresses or limitations will the protective clothing impose?

5. Evaluate the need for decontamination. Both reusable and single-use items may require decontamination.

6. Make the selection. Pick PPE that provides suitable protection for the hazard(s) involved and is cost-effective.

7. Provide training. Make sure workers know why the PPE is needed, how to use it, and how to maintain it.

8. Establish surveillance. Monitor the use of PPE to make sure it is effective.

Not all companies have safety and health professionals on staff who can perform these assessments. Bob Barrels, president of Safety Management Services Inc., Arlington Heights, Ill., says one solution is to have a plant safety committee or a subcommittee do the evaluations with the help of a safety officer or consultant. Another source of help, he said, is your workers' comp insurance carrier, which can do this as part of its annual inspection.

In assessing hazards, be as specific as possible. Rick Kaletsky, a safety consultant based in Bethany, Conn., and a former OSHA assistant area director, noted that it is not enough, for example, to say that workers need eye protection. "You have to make it clear what the hazards are. Is it impact to the eyes? Is it welding flash? …

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