Personal protective equipment (PPE) is found in just about every workplace. From the low risk environment of office spaces to high risk construction sites, PPE is required and mandated by state or provincial, national, and local regulatory agencies.
Choosing the right PPE for the job can be a tricky decision process. Whether you are looking to buy PPE for team members or just looking to complete a task in the safest manner possible, these seven considerations will help you select the gear you need.
1. SDS (Safety Data Sheets)
Safety data sheets (SDS) are a good starting point for determining your PPE requirements. If your workplace has a product controlled under OSHA or the Canadian Hazardous Product Act, you must have the corresponding SDS on hand.
An SDS will outline not only safe storage practices for the controlled product, but also the PPE required to handle it.
A quick look at the safety data sheet for PVC glue, for example, shows that the manufacturer recommends wearing a face shield, safety glasses with side shields, or goggles to protect the face and eyes, along with chemical resistant gloves and clothing to protect the hands and body.
2. Hazard Assessments
Properly conducted hazard assessments are one of the foundations of a safety program. In its most basic form, it involves answering two questions:
- What tasks will workers be performing?
- What are the risks associated with those tasks?
Your answer to that second question will help you determine what kind of PPE you will need.
First, using the hierarchy of hazard controls, you can look for other ways to eliminate or control the hazard. Assess whether you can:
- Completely remove the hazard
- Implement engineering controls (minimize the hazard by modifying the process, equipment, or material)
- Implement administrative controls (eliminate or limit exposure to hazards using methods like task or employee rotation, training, and environmental sampling)
If these steps do not fully eliminate the risks, you will need to resort to PPE.
(Learn more about The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls.)
Suppose your company is constructing a high-rise building. There is no way to avoid working at heights, but you can manage some of the risks with cranes, elevators, guardrails, and a solid training program.
Still, even after implementing all of these, some PPE will still be required. The guardrails, for instance, can still put workers close enough to the edge to require a fall protection or travel restraint PPE system. Likewise, barricaded lift zones and overhead protection limits will reduce risks associated with falling materials, but won't completely eliminate them. As such, hard hats will still be required.
3. Acts, Legislation, and Codes
Local and national safety acts and legislation can act as benchmarks for PPE in your workplace.
It often only takes a review of OSHA's Occupational Safety and Health Act in the United States or the provincial acts and regulations in Canada to clearly identify what PPE you are obliged to use or provide for a task.
In Alberta, Canada, for example, Part 18 of the Occupational Health and Safety Code is dedicated to Personal Protective Equipment and is broken down into 27 sections that cover everything from protective headwear to respiratory protection. It specifies, for instance, that eye protection must meet CSA standards and provides reference to and from the code.
In America, the standard is set by Regulation 1910 Subpart I Personal Protective Equipment from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It will, for example, identify and refer to the standards for eye and face protection set out by the American National Standards Institute/International Safety Equipment Association (ANSI/ISEA).
The acts and legislation, however, are not always cut and dry. You may find it challenging to interpret them or clearly understand what your PPE requirements are. In those cases, looking to the appropriate regulatory bodies can move you closer to figuring out what equipment you need.
4. Regulatory Bodies
Many readers will have a negative association with regulatory bodies. After all, they're the ones who implement requirements that stretch companies' budgets, issue fines for even the smallest infraction, and conduct time consuming audits.
(Learn more in 6 Steps to Prepare for Unexpected OSHA Visits.)
But all of this is part of the important and difficult work they do. Their role is to come into a workplace and intervene when systems have failed. This role makes them a valuable resource when it comes to selecting PPE, since they have direct experience interpreting and implementing acts, legislation, and codes.
If you're having a hard time interpreting the regulations that apply to your workplace, contact your local regulatory agency and enlist their help in making sure your PPE selections are compliant.
5. Suppliers and Manufacturers
Suppliers and manufactures can be an excellent resource when looking to determine the right PPE for the job and environment.
Many of the largest suppliers have an extensive health and safety inventory, and like all good businesses they have industry-trained staff on hand to assist you in determining the right product for the job.
All reputable manufacturers will ensure that their products meet local and national standards. And every diligent supplier will know be sensitive to the different needs of various workplaces and carrying a wide range of products to meet them.
In my own experience, most suppliers and manufacturers are happy to come to your workplace and provide you with a comprehensive showcase of their product lines. This will not only let you look at the equipment before purchasing it, but also give you an opportunity to ask questions about compliance and get advice on the use and care of the PPE.
6. Safety Professionals
Along with legislated frameworks, incident investigations, and emergency planning, PPE selection and use is a key element of any Occupational Health and Safety college curriculum.
With equipment-specific training and the ability to prioritize what, when, and how to use PPE, a qualified safety professional hire don a full-time or short-term basis can save you a lot of time and money in the selection process.
(See Safety Certifications 101 to learn more.)
Workers are sometimes overlooked in the PPE selection process, but they can provide invaluable feedback. They are, after all, intimately familiar with the challenges of their work and they will be the ones who have to wear the PPE day after day.
A roofer required to wear fall protection equipment may, for example, provide insight into what brand and style may be best for the current scope of their work, while a sheet metal worker might be in a good position to advise on the best gloves for cut protection and material handling.
Workers will also be able to speak to concerns that go beyond safety standards and legislation, such as comfort and practicality.
(Engaging directly with employees has other safety benefits, too. Learn about some of them in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture.)
Whether used individually or completed sequentially, these seven points can greatly assist in determining if, when, and what PPE you or your employees will need.
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