Personal Protective Equipment: The Weakest Link in Employee Protection
By Susen Trail | 03/27/2022
Look at the Big Picture and Follow Through
When Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is provided without training and oversight, the PPE itself can become the hazard. The process starts with Hazard Assessment and Control. PPE is supposed to be a temporary protection until an engineering or work practice control can be put in place to remove the potential for exposure.
Example at OSHA Consulting Site:
An employee requested a respirator because the air contaminants in her work area irritated her nose and throat. She was given a half mask with the appropriate cartridge. When I saw her, she had carefully placed her bandanna around the seal on the respirator, reducing the protection of the device. I asked her why she had done this, and she replied that the seal irritated her skin and created a rash.
It turns out that, at the end of the day, she left her respirator on the work bench next to the heated acid bath. Overnight acid vapor would deposit inside the respirator and on the seal. When she donned the protective equipment, the seal would press the acid condensate onto her skin.
It turned out that the employee had been provided the protective equipment she requested for comfort but had not been provided with a place to store it or training on how to care for it.
The Well-Intentioned Miser
While working as a Chemical Hygiene Officer, back when I was working as a molecular biologist, I noticed one of the lab techs carefully taking off her nitrile gloves so that she could put them on again. She did this up to three times with the same gloves. When I asked her why she did this she said she would do that when she had only worn the gloves for a short time because she didn’t want to be wasteful.
I pointed out that each time she put on the gloves she was stretching the material that was only manufactured to be stretched once. As a result the glove would only perform to specifications the first time it was worn. It took time to resolve this habit but making sure there were at least one spare box per glove size had a positive effect.
Storage: Location, Location, Location
When employees are not provided with a convenient place to store their PPE they will come up with their own solutions.
For example, when inspecting a high school, I like to get into all the nooks and crannies. I could smell the chlorine in the hot, humid, swimming pool mechanical room. This room is in a sort of sub-basement and is somewhat difficult to reach. The chlorine in the vapor was not overpowering and did not irritate my nose but you could see evidence of corrosion on all the metal surfaces, as is usual. I asked to see the pool maintenance employee's hands and forearms. As expected, he had a mild case of dermatitis.
I asked him how long this had been going on and he said "a few years now" and his doctor could not figure it out. He confirmed that it did get better when he was on vacation. Then I pointed out the heavy duty re-useable gloves lying nearby on top of a chemical container. It appeared to be a habitual storage place, confirmed by the employee.
I explained to the employee he had been giving himself the uncomfortable rash. As the gloves sat there between uses the inside and outside would be exposed to corrosive vapors. When he put the gloves on he trapped the corrosive chemical against his skin creating the rash.
The exposure was infrequent enough the employee had not made the connection. The solution was provision of a large zip lock bag (engineering control) into which the employee would store the gloves after they had been rinsed of chemicals and dried with paper towels (training.) The bags where the color of the zip changes when sealed are best.
Here's the thing, this employee was the school's Safety Manager. Almost all of the schools I inspected while working as Wisconsin's only Industrial Hygienist OSHA and state occupational regulation enforcement officer, assigned this role to the Buildings and Grounds Manager, but few could afford to provide much training. Given that, almost all of them devoted time, effort, and responsibility for this "add on" task. It is where I got the idea for Simple Safety Coach, an "electronic clone" of what I brought to employees like this one.
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