The budget's tight this quarter and you just got some bad news. The hazard assessment for the new job site just came back and it's got a long list of required and recommended PPE tacked onto it.

Letting the employees work without fall harnesses, hi-vis vests, and safety glasses isn't an option. But could you save money by getting the employees to pay for their own gear?

That's the question we're going to answer in this article. We'll go over what PPE employers are required to supply, what PPE employees can be asked to pay for out of their pockets, and why employers might want to supply the PPE even when they don't have to.

What PPE Employers Are Required to Supply

Most countries require employers to provide proper PPE to their employees. But this hasn't always been the case, and even today there are some subtleties that are worth getting a handle on.

Changes in PPE Regulation

Until 2007, the cost of PPE was addressed under different standards for American employers. Some of these standards mandated that employers pay for the PPE (respiratory protection), while others (eye and face protection) allowed employers to offload the cost onto their employees.

Additionally, 13 of the 26 states with state-run OSHA already required employers to pay for most PPE. Only three states made employers pay for all protective equipment.

To streamline PPE regulations, OSHA amended its 29 CFR 1910.132 standard on November 14, 2007. Paragraph (h) clearly specifies that employers should provide PPE to their employees at no cost. This applies to all consumables and worn-out parts (respirator filters, welding helmet cover plates, and so on).

Exclusions Worth Noting

While the updated regulation sounds unequivocal, there are a few exclusions. These include:

  • Clothing that is not related to the worker’s safety (such as a server’s uniform)
  • Clothing and other products intended only to protect the wearer from inclement weather (raincoats, sunglasses, sunscreen)
  • Respirators used under the voluntary use provisions of 29 CFR 1910.134 (if the employee asks for a respirator in the absence of a generic health or safety hazard)
  • Non-specialty safety shoes or boots (employers are still required to pay for specialty safety shoes, such as steel toe rubber boots or shoes with non-slip soles)
  • Fire retardant clothing
  • Any PPE that the employee intentionally destroyed or lost (employers are obligated to provide the PPE but have the right to recover the cost)
  • PPE used by contractors and their subcontractors

OSHA Clarificatory Letter

29 CFR 1910.132 is meant to eliminate ambiguities, but some still remain. Thankfully, OSHA has clarified some issues in its response to a letter from Scott Day, president of SafeDay, Inc.

Here are its major conclusions:

  • When an employee is terminated, the employer may charge them for the cost of any PPE that had been provided to them and either not returned or intentionally destroyed. The employer, however, cannot charge for damage from normal wear and tear.
  • The employer can withhold a deposit for the value of the PPE provided, but they should return the deposit at the termination of employment if the employee returns the PPE.
  • Employees can volunteer to use their own PPE, as long as it provides adequate protection and the employer allows its use on the job. This provision can’t be used to force the employees to buy their own PPE.

Additionally, it is common practice for some employers to:

  • Provide an allowance to their employees to buy specific PPE. This gives employees control over their PPE choices, so long as they fit within the company's guidelines. This is helpful for both the employee and the employer, since:
    • The employer doesn’t have to manage the PPE (stocking, purchasing, etc.)
    • The employee can choose the type and model of PPE that they prefer or fits better
  • Reimburse the employee for PPE they purchased themselves, provided they followed the company guidelines. Reimbursement should be done within one pay period.

Regulations in Canada, the UK, and Australia

Canada, the UK, and Australia follow roughly the same guidelines.

A few subtle differences are worth noting:

  • Canada’s provinces and territories have each their own regulations, but all of them require the employer to provide PPE to their employees. But there is no explicit mention that the employer has to pay for the PPE, as in the OSHA standard. It is, however, generally accepted by employers that the requirement to provide PPE implies that the employer should also pay for it.
  • Section 9 of the UK's Health and Safety Act states that no charge can be made to the worker for the provision of PPE that is used only at work. This implies that the employer can’t take a deposit or have the employees buy their own PPE and reimburse them at a later time.
  • In Australia, the employers have to pay for the PPE but they must also consult with their employees or their representative when selecting the PPE. The employer is allowed to provide an allowance to their employees to buy PPE, but have to carry out an assessment to ensure that the PPE is suitable.

Why It's a Good Idea to Pay (Even When You Don't Have To)

No one wants to put themselves in danger, but it's not something you can always avoid if you're on the hook for buying your own safety gear.

Every worker knows that working without the right kind of hard hat or not replacing a fall protection lanyard once it starts showing signs of fraying is risky. But when they feel they have to choose between putting enough food on the table for the family or replacing their worn PPE, many will decide to work without the right kind of protection.

When we don't provide PPE for our employees, we're asking them to make the choice between making a living and being safe at work. And that's not a choice anyone should have to make.

Every employer and safety professional does what they can to keep employees safe. Following the hierarchy of hazard controls, we take every step we can to eliminate hazards. When we can't, we implement engineering and administrative controls to mitigate risks. For whatever risks are left after all of this, we give employees PPE to minimize any harm that comes to them in the event of an incident (learn more about The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls).

We take responsibility to eliminate and control these hazards. So, why would we stop at the PPE? We pay for every control measure because we value our employees' safety. We should do the same when it comes to supplying PPE, even if we're not legally required to.

There's also a very simple business case in favor of paying for employees' PPE: it has a good return on investment. Supplying the right PPE to employees minimizes the cost of injuries, improves motivation, and increases productivity. The result is, according to OSHA, a four dollar return for every dollar spent on PPE.

Conclusion

With a few exceptions, the employers are the ones required to pay for PPE.

That might sound like a burden, but it's really a good thing for all parties involved. Paying for PPE ensures that safety of your workers and provides solid returns. As always, making sure every worker is safe is in everyone's best interest.

Check out the rest of our content about Personal Protective Equipment here.