Personal Protective Equipment

By Tabitha Mishra
Last updated: July 8, 2024

What Does Personal Protective Equipment Mean?

Personal protective equipment (or PPE) is any specialized equipment or clothing used to protect workers from known safety hazards they might encounter on the job.

This is a broad category that includes, among others:

Safeopedia Explains Personal Protective Equipment

The Importance of PPE

Hazards are present in every workplace. To ensure the safety of employees, those hazards must be controlled. One common control method is PPE, which is protective equipment worn by a worker.

PPE is considered the last line of defense against workplace hazards. It is intended to protect the wearer only after all other controls have failed or when other control methods could not be implemented.

Preventing Harm

The fatal injury rate is 3.6 per 100,000 workers for all occupations combined. For some of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, the rate is much higher. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the jobs with the highest fatality rates are:

  • Logging: More than 82 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Farming, Forestry, and Fishing: More than 75 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Roofing: 59 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Aircraft Pilots and Engineers: More than 48 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Structural Steel Workers: More than 36 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Trucking: 29 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Garbage Collectors: 28 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Mining Machine Operators: 26.7 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Construction Trades Helpers: 23 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers
  • Electric Power Line Installers and Maintenance Workers: 22 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers

While each of these fatalities is a tragedy, the number would likely be much higher without the use of PPE. Moreover, consistent and compliant use of PPE has the potential to reduce these numbers even further.

According to the BLS:

  • Only 16% of workers who suffered head injuries on the job were wearing hard hats at the time of the incident
  • Only 1% of the 770 workers who suffered an injury to the face was wearing face protection
  • Less than a quarter of those who suffered foot injuries were wearing safety shoes

This data suggests that PPE is highly effective at protecting users from injury.

In addition to keeping workers safe, a comprehensive PPE program also increases productivity and profitability by reducing production interruptions, days away from work, and other slowdowns caused by incidents and injuries.

What Safety Professionals Must Know About PPE

Employers must provide every employee with the gear, equipment, and PPE needed to perform their jobs safely.

It is the responsibility of safety professionals to ensure that:

  • The PPE provides adequate protection against the hazards workers face on the job
  • The PPE does not introduce new hazards (e.g. heavy PPE in hot environments increasing the risk of heat stress)
  • The PPE selection is compliant with all applicable regulations
  • Workers are trained on how to use the PPE properly

Per OSHA, safety professionals must ensure that employees know the following about the use of PPE:

  • When wearing PPE is necessary (based the job task, hazards in the work environment, or specific areas of a facility)
  • What kind of PPE is best suited for the job (e.g. when to use safety goggles rather than safety glasses)
  • How to properly wear PPE (donning the PPE, adjusting it to ensure a proper fit, and safely removing it after the work is done)
  • The limitations of the equipment (the possibility of being injured while wearing PPE, the importance of other control methods, and new hazards that might be introduced by the PPE itself)
  • How to care for and maintain PPE (inspecting, storing, and cleaning protective gear)
  • How long the PPE can be used before being replaced and how to dispose of it

Key Types of PPE

PPE is divided into different categories based on the type of hazard it is used to control or the part of the body it protects.

Here are the major types of PPE an employee might require in order to do their job safely.

Head and Neck Protection

Head and neck protection helps safeguard workers from falling objects, debris, electrical hazards, protruding or low-hanging objects, and UV radiation. Hard hats and safety helmets are common in construction and other industries where such hazards are present.

Depending on the type of head protection used and its rating, this category of PPE can:

  • Protect the face, neck, and shoulder region
  • Protect the head from sharp objects
  • Absorb the impact of hard blows
  • Prevent electrical shocks due to accidental contact with electrical wires
  • Provide fire and water resistance

Hard hats and helmets must meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard requirements and be appropriately rated for the type of hazards the user will encounter on the job.

Hard hats are divided into three industrial classes:

  • Class A Hard Hats: Protect against impact, penetrating objects, and electrical hazards up to 2,200 volts
  • Class B Hard Hats: Protect against impact, penetrating objects, and electrical hazards up to 20,000 volts
  • Class C Hard Hats: Provide impact protection only

Face and Neck Protection

Face protection includes all PPE that is designed to safeguard the eyes, nose, mouth, and front of the neck.

This category includes safety glasses, safety goggles, face shields, welding shields, and laser safety goggles. Depending on the specific type of face protection, it can protect workers from projectiles (e.g. wood chips, sparks), chemical splashes, and radiant energy produced by welding or soldering equipment.

Safety glasses are the most common type of face protection in occupational settings. Unlike regular eyewear, these glasses are made with impact-resistant metal or plastic safety frames and impact-resistant lenses. They also have side shields to provide additional protection from debris and other hazards. All safety glasses worn for occupational use must comply with ANSI standard Z87.1.

Safety goggles are similar but also form a tight-fitting seal around the eyes to provide better protection against impact, dust, and liquid splashes.

Hearing Protection

Hearing protection devices, such as earmuffs and earplugs, lessen the impact of sounds from machinery, power tools, furnaces, and other loud noises in the working environment.

  • Earplugs are fitted into the user’s ear canal. They are typically moldable and able to conform to whatever shape is required, although custom-molded earplugs can provide an even better fit.
  • Earmuffs sit over the ears and are held in place by a band that rests on the top of the head. Although more comfortable than earplugs, they provide a lower level of hearing protection.

Hearing protection is essential even for jobs where the noise level can be tolerated, since exposure to lower noise levels over a prolonged period of time can still cause hearing loss.

OSHA requires hearing protection for any job where exposure to noise exceeds an average of 85 decibels over the course of 8 hours. As noise levels increase, the duration of exposure that triggers a requirement for hearing protection becomes lower (workers should not be exposed to 88 decibels for longer than 4 hours, for instance).

Hand Protection

Safety gloves are found on every worksite, but they will provide different types of protection. Common types of hand protection include:

  • Chemical-resistant gloves (including latex, nitrile, and neoprene gloves)
  • Cut-resistant gloves
  • Impact-resistant gloves
  • Rubber insulating gloves

OSHA standard 1910.138 (a) for Hand Protection states that employers must provide their employees with appropriate hand protection when their hands are exposed to hazards like:

  • Absorbing harmful substances through the skin
  • Severe abrasion, lacerations, or puncture wounds
  • Thermal burns
  • Chemical burns

Other common hazards that place the hands at risk include:

  • Pinch points (hands or fingers getting caught in the moving parts of machinery or equipment)
  • Repetitive strain or motion (which can cause injury to the joints and tendons of the hand)
  • Electric shock
  • Insect or animal bites

While the level of protection is the most important factor in selecting gloves, employers and safety professionals should also consider:

  • Fit and comfort (poorly fitting gloves can get caught in pinch points more easily or slip off during use)
  • Durability (a glove that tears or breaks while being used will not provide the intended amount of protection)
  • Grip and dexterity (the wrong glove can make it difficult for workers to perform their job tasks)

Foot and Leg Protection

This type of protection is required for employees whose legs or feet can get injured by, for example, dropping a heavy object, spilling corrosive materials, or using a chainsaw.

PPE for the feet and legs includes:

Safety shoes must comply with at least one of the following standards:

  • ASTM F 2412-2005
  • ASTM 2413-2005
  • ANSI Z41-1999
  • ANSI Z41-1991

ANSI-approved footwear has toe protection and protects the foot from impact and compression injuries.

Respiratory Protection

Respiratory protection is designed to prevent the inhalation of hazardous materials. This includes dusts and particulate matter, fumes and vapors, smoke, and air pollution.

Respiratory PPE used in occupational settings include:

  • Filtering Facepiece: N95 facemasks and other disposable respirators that cover the mouth and nose to prevent the inhalation of dusts and other particulate matter
  • Half-Mask Respirator: Reusable masks that cover the nose and mouth and can protect against vapors and gases
  • Full Face Respirator: Similar to a half-mask respirator but also protects the eyes
  • Powered Air-Purifying Respirator (PAPR): A respirator that blows air through a filter, allowing the user to breathe more comfortably
  • Supplied Air Respirator (SAR): A full face respirator connected to an external air supply
  • Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA): A supplied air respirator with air supplied from a gas cylinder worn on the user’s back

Fall Protection

OSHA requires fall protection measures whenever employees are working at heights. What is considered working at heights depends on the type of workplace. Fall protection is required at:

  • 4 feet of elevation in General Industry
  • 5 feet of elevation in Shipyards
  • 6 feet of elevation in Construction
  • 8 feet of elevation in Longshoring Operations

Fall protection PPE falls into three categories:

  • Travel Restraint Systems: These systems tether the worker to an anchor point on the jobsite and prevents them from moving near leading edges and other fall hazards
  • Positioning Device Systems: These systems support the worker on a wall or other vertical surface, freeing both hands so they can perform job tasks without having to hold onto a ladder
  • Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS): These systems are designed to prevent a falling worker from hitting the ground and to absorb some of the force of a fall, thereby reducing the risk and severity of injury

Body Protection

This broad term encompasses PPE designed to provide full body coverage and protection. This includes coveralls, disposable gowns, and flame-resistant apparel. It can have a number of uses, including:

  • Protecting the wearer from biological hazards
  • Preventing airborne particles (e.g. asbestos) from contaminating the wearer’s hair or clothing
  • Keeping sparks or embers from burning the wearer’s clothing

Full body PPE is used in medical settings, food preparation and handling, chemical manufacturing, and welding.

PPE in Construction

Construction is a high-risk industry and, as such, requires additional and more stringent safety measures to keep employees safe. This includes more extensive PPE than is typically required for work in what OSHA considers “general industry.”

Most workers on a construction site will wear PPE that consists of:

When doing roofing or working at heights, a personal fall arrest system is typically included as well.

Specialists and contractors might also need additional PPE depending on the type of work they do. For example:

  • Electricians will require PPE that is rated for electrical hazards
  • Workers grinding or cutting into concrete or granite will need respirators to prevent the inhalation of silica dust
  • Demolition work might require coveralls if the materials being removed are known or suspected to contain asbestos

The 4 Levels of PPE

OSHA’s 1910.120 standard for Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) specifies four levels of PPE that must be used when dealing with harmful chemicals and other hazardous materials.

Level A

Level A protection is required when there is a high probability of exposure to hazards. This level of PPE provides the maximum level of skin, eye and respiratory protection. This is commonly known as a “full HAZMAT suit” and includes:

Level B

Level B provides the maximum level of respiratory protection but less protection for the skin. This PPE includes:

  • Positive pressure, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)
  • Face shield
  • Coveralls
  • Chemical-resistant clothing with hoods
  • Chemical resistant boots
  • Internally and externally chemical-resistant gloves

Level C

Level C protection is required when the type and concentration of airborne contaminants can be controlled with an air-purifying respirator. It includes:

  • Full-face air-purifying respirators
  • Escape mask
  • Internally and externally chemical-resistant gloves
  • Disposable chemical-resistant boots
  • Hard hat

Level D

Level D protection offers a basic level of HAZMAT protection and is used when the risks are relatively low. It includes:

  • Face-shield
  • Coveralls
  • Gloves
  • Safety glasses
  • Steel-toed, chemical-resistant boots

PPE Use Requirements

Employers and employees both have a responsibility for ensuring that work is being carried out safely. This includes supplying and using adequate PPE.

When it comes to PPE, employers must:

  • Conduct hazard assessment to identify and control physical and health hazards
  • Provide employees with PPE that is appropriate for the job
  • Train employees on how to use, inspect, and maintain PPE
  • Replace any PPE that has been damaged or worn out
  • Review and update the PPE program on a regular basis

Employees should:

  • Use the PPE provided to them
  • Attend training sessions
  • Inspect their PPE at the start of every shift
  • Properly store and maintain their PPE
  • Replace their PPE when its integrity might be compromised

Defective or damaged PPE must be replaced immediately, since it can no longer guarantee the right level of protection.

Donning and Doffing PPE

Donning PPE refers to the correct procedure for putting on PPE in order to minimize exposure to safety hazards. Doffing PPE refers to removing it correctly after use to ensure that contaminants do not come in contact with the body.

Strict donning and doffing procedures must be followed for work with infectious agents to prevent contamination to self or others. The exact procedure will depend on the PPE used and can vary from workplace to workplace.

Basic Donning Procedure for PPE

  • Wash or sanitize hands
  • Put on gown, coveralls, or other body protection
  • Put on shoe covers (if used)
  • Put on respirator and ensure it is fitted properly
  • Put on eye protection (glasses, goggles, or face shield)
  • Put on gloves

Basic Doffing Procedure for PPE

  • Remove gloves without touching the outer surface (slip fingers from the ungloved hand under the wrist of the remaining glove to remove it) and dispose of them in the appropriate waste container
  • Remove gown, coveralls, or other body protection and dispose
  • Remove shoe covers (if used) and dispose
  • Wash hands
  • Remove eye protection
  • Remove respirator (if using a disposable respirator, discard it in the appropriate waste container)
  • Wash hands again


Personal Protection Equipment

Share This Term

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • X

Related Reading

Trending Articles

Go back to top