Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a critical component for any safety program, including those designed to protect construction workers. It is an employer's responsibility to ensure that all workers have the PPE they need to do their jobs safely.
PPE refers to any item worn by a worker that is designed to protect parts of their body or provide other safety features, such as reflective attributes that make them more visible in low light conditions.
The value of these items should not be underestimated. Recent construction safety data highlights a concerning reality: a significant portion of fatalities occurring on construction sites (approximately 60%) could have been prevented with the proper use of PPE.
Knowing the importance of personal protective equipment for construction workers, as well as the type they require for their jobs, will keep everyone safe on the worksite.
Types of Personal Protective Equipment In the Construction Industry
The choices for PPE for construction workers will vary, depending on the tasks performed by the worker and the hazards present in their work environment. Common types of personal protective equipment in the construction industry include:
- Head protection (e.g. hard hats)
- Eye and face protection (e.g. safety glasses, goggles, face shields for welding)
- Hearing protection (e.g. earplugs, earmuffs)
- Respiratory protection (e.g. N95 masks, supplied air respirators)
- Hand protection (e.g. latex gloves, cut-proof gloves, chemical-resistant gloves)
- Foot protection (e.g. steel toed boots, metatarsal guards, work shoes)
- High-visibility clothing (e.g. reflective vests, brightly colored safety clothing)
Some employers may combine several items to provide the safest working conditions possible. For example, construction workers may wear a Class 2 high-contrast mesh vest with steel toed boots and a corresponding reflective hat in sunny weather conditions.
(Learn more about Safety Toes: The Materials That Keep Your Feet Safe)
How To Choose PPE for Construction
Choosing the proper personal protective equipment for a construction job will require careful consideration of the working environment, the hazards the worker may encounter, and all applicable safety regulations.
Here are some potential hazards to keep in mind when selecting PPE.
While the lighting on indoor construction projects is relatively constant, outdoor workers may deal with lighting conditions that change over the course of a workday. A bright, sunny day can grow dark with the presence of fog or cloudy conditions. Working at night also poses obvious visibility issues.
Construction workers who spend even part of their shifts in low light conditions should be equipped with high-visibility clothing to ensure that they can be seen.
Moving Equipment or Vehicles
Whenever employees work around vehicles or moving equipment such as forklifts, it's important to ensure that those employees are easy to spot – and therefore easy to avoid.
Safety vests, jackets, or coveralls in bright colors can accomplish this. Consulting standards for high-visibility clothing will let you know which color schemes and design features are required for each situation.
Clothing with retro-reflective elements can also make workers easier to see, especially in low light conditions.
The more visible the workers are, the more quickly a vehicle or equipment operator can notice them when they're in their field of vision. And the quicker they are seen, the less likely they are to be injured in a collision – or swerved away from in a near miss.
(Learn about 4 Key Standards That Apply to High-Visibility Clothing)
Construction work is carried out in all types of weather, from pleasantly warm days to downpours and extreme heat. No worker should have to suffer through those weather conditions without equipment designed to handle them.
On hot days, workers should not be burdened with more PPE than they need. Employers must give them all the essential protection to do their jobs safely, but adding too much bulky or heavy equipment can cause them to sweat and physically exert themselves more, both of which will increase their risk of dehydration and heat stress. When a lighter, more breathable option is available, consider having it on hand for days when the heat is overbearing.
Conversely, there might be times when the working environment is uncomfortably cold. Workers should be able to cover up, wear layers, and don winter gear if needed. It's important to ensure that any high-visibility or flame-resistant clothing they may need can be worn over their warm clothing; otherwise, they will be tempted to cover it up to stay warm, which will negate the safety properties of those items.
Rain is also inevitable. Every worker needs to have rainwear they can wear on the job. To meet safety requirements, this rainwear may need to be flame-resistant, have high-visibility elements, or not interfere with the use of other protective equipment.
(Find out Why Your Rainwear Might Need Flame Resistance)
Construction involves the use of numerous combustible and flammable substances. This, combined with the need for welding and other tasks that can produce sparks or high heat, makes fire protection an essential consideration for any PPE program.
Flame resistant clothing and other safety gear made with flame-retardant materials can protect the wearer from burns and prevent the clothing from igniting, thereby limiting the extent of the injuries.
Chemicals and Corrosive Materials
Eye and skin protection is critical when handling corrosive solvents or harmful chemicals on the job site.
Safety glasses are typically sufficient to protect from chemical splashes. With particularly harmful chemicals, however, it may be necessary to provide workers with safety goggles.
Depending on the type of chemical used and its strength, workers may be able to use latex gloves or might need to wear heavy duty chemical resistant gloves.
Interactions with the Public
Many construction jobs are done on closed sites. However, some projects need to be done in public spaces, often with a lot of foot traffic around – such as renovating a shopping mall while it remains open and operational.
Construction workers in these situations will need ways to prevent members of the public from encroaching on their workspace or putting themselves (and the workers) in harm's way. This is accomplished mainly through signage, barricades, and caution tape. For PPE, the main consideration is making workers easily identifiable. High-visibility clothing is a great way to accomplish this. Not only does it help construction workers stand out and helps drivers see them at a distance, but it also clearly signals to passerbys that they are at work and engaged in difficult and risky tasks.
Construction work carries many inherent risks. The heavy equipment, outdoor setting, and fast-paced working environment bring a number of hazards with them. Mitigating these is an employer's responsibility, and that includes providing every worker with adequate PPE to ensure that each worker is protected, visible, and able to work safely.