So, safety glasses, hard hats, safety footwear. What does this all mean and what is PPE or personal protective equipment? In today's world of new gadgets, tools and machinery, which tend to make life easier, there is always the ever increasing risk of injury. For example, 20 years ago if you opened your garage you probably had a weed whacker, leaf blower, chain saw and hedge trimmer. All separate tools, each for a specific job. In 2017, there is now one tool available for all 4 applications! Amazing, awesome and yet still as potentially dangerous as the tools of 20 years ago. This applies to the same thought that when exposed to any hazard, we should never rely on PPE alone. I mean let's face it, just because a hard hat is worn doesn't mean the hazard miraculously disappears, does it?
In the safety arena, PPE has been a growing industry for years. Watch an old safety video from the 1950's and you will see a worker with a respirator. Read up on the Golden Gate Bridge and you see the first implementation of fall protection. Not much has changed since the old days in terms of knowing what you should be donning. However, one thing that has changed is how effective PPE can be and how we approach it.
The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls is a system used in the industry to minimize or eliminate exposure to hazards. It is a widely accepted system promoted by numerous safety organizations. This concept is taught to managers in industry to be promoted as standard practice in the workplace. Various illustrations are used to depict this system, most commonly a triangle. What many workers find surprising though is that PPE is the last, or least effective, hazard control. PPE is the least effective means of controlling hazards because of the high potential for damage to render PPE ineffective. Additionally, some PPE, such as respirators, increase physiological effort to complete a task and, therefore, may require medical examinations to ensure workers can use the PPE without risking their health. Another big issue with PPE is that is can tend to increase the risk of injury or distract the worker if it isn't fitted or worn properly.
Looking at different types of PPE, some are easy to don and doff and do not require special training or authorization such as safety eye and foot wear. Others, like respirators, fall arrest equipment and arc flash suits may require awareness or competent training and even medical physicals. In the end though, PPE can drastically reduce the chances of getting injured. There are countless instances in which a worker is burned, and after the incident, noted that the only area not affected were his/her eyes due to safety glasses being worn. Other incidents may include situations where a worker was wearing chaps while using a chain saw. The chain saw kicks back and hits the workers leg, but is stopped immediately by the chaps.
In many cases, it can be difficult and not even feasible to eliminate or substitute a hazard. PPE does have its place and can make a job much safer. It is very important to note, however, that other controls work hand in hand to make our lives not only easier, but safer. So, before you reach for that hard hat or respirator ask yourself some questions. Can I eliminate or substitute the hazard? Have I had the proper training? How effective will my PPE be? Think twice before rolling the dice on PPE.