Using personal protection equipment poses risks
By MARY P. HOLLINS
Hollins Risk Management
Rising costs for workers compensation and general liability are prompting employers in many industries to reexamine their workplace safety practices. Significant bottom line benefits can be achieved by employers who are diligent not only in identifying and evaluating risks, but also in exploring alternatives for creating safe work environments.
As employers, contractors are required by law to provide safe work environments for their employees. This requires identifying hazards and taking steps to prevent harm to workers who are exposed to hazards.
Three methods are generally recognized as prevention techniques:
- eliminate the hazard,
- contain the exposure to the hazard, and
- protect employees from the dangers associated with exposure to the hazard.
Whether any one method, or a combination of them, is chosen depends on feasibility and cost factors. Historically in construction, such factors are considered in the context of each project, with employers tending to favor employee protection through the use of personal protective equipment over the other two methods.
For example, risks from overhead hazards due to falling or protruding objects are acknowledged as common hazards. Thus a type of personal protective equipment, hardhats, has been required on job sites for years. Likewise, work boots are the accepted standard in the construction industry to protect workers feet and ankles from punctures, scrapes and bruises and breaks.
Using such equipment to protect workers from these types of hazards is preferred because it's easy and economical. The other two methods are usually not considered to be as feasible or practical.
Eliminating hazards may also entail using specially designed equipment. Power tools with guards affixed to prevent contact with dangerous moving parts are an example. It can also mean having controls installed to automatically maintain environmental conditions within safe operating levels, such as switches on ventilation systems to assure air quality is maintained. Many safety options now available to contractors are recent innovations or adaptations from other industries.
Containing exposure to the hazard means implementing administrative patterns to minimize the number of persons at risk. This could involve steps like erecting physical barriers around hazardous work areas, limiting the number of workers and/or the amount of time workers can work in hazardous areas, and scheduling hazardous work to be performed at times when the fewest people are at the job site. Only recently has industry practice evolved to allow contractors to accommodate these types of options.
Hard hats and workboots are standard equipment, but contractors must also explore ways to eliminate job site hazards.|
As workers compensation and general liability costs rise, even greater emphasis will be focused on workplace safety. Based on past experience, many contractors continue to meet this challenge by relying on the use of personal protective equipment to protect workers from hazards. For example, in addition to hardhats and work boots, mandatory use of eye protection and hearing protection for all workers on job sites is on the rise. Also emerging are mandates for hand protection.
The use of personal protective equipment poses its own set of risks that prudent employers must consider. When these risks are identified and evaluated, using PPE may become a less attractive alternative to improving workplace safety.
Among factors that should be assessed in the use of personal protective equipment are:
- Suitability: The selection of PPE must be made based on the hazard related to the task being performed. Using the wrong PPE may increase rather than decrease the risk of harm. For example, hand protection has commonly been translated to a requirement for wearing work gloves at all times. Certain types of gloves are designed primarily to protect hands from cuts and scrapes, others from chemical burns and irritation. Thus, in choosing gloves for hand protection, the type of glove must be appropriate for the task and the setting.
- Individuality: A common assumption made in choosing PPE is that one size fits all. As equipment becomes more sophisticated, the fiscal impact of purchasing the appropriate PPE for each employee becomes apparent. Today's hardhats, easily adjustable to accommodate the majority of head sizes, can offer low-cost protection. Specialized respirators that require more care in fitting head size and facial features may be cost prohibitive for large numbers of employees.
- Adaptability: In addition to individual employee use, PPE that can be re-used or adapted for other uses is now available. A respirator that is designed to work with various types of replacement cartridges is a good example. However, these features increase costs associated with storage, inspection, parts, usage and training related to all of these.
- Availability: Reliance on PPE means assuring that there will always be a sufficient supply of appropriate PPE and necessary components. Maintaining a constant flow or an inventory of specialized PPE and parts such as respirators may be very different than assuring there is an adequate number of hardhats for all job sites.
- Capability: Because of the consequences of exposure to certain types of hazards, many types of PPE have monitoring and documentation requirements tied to their use. Hearing conservation programs, for example, require periodic job site noise checks as well as annual hearing tests for exposed employees. Employees who wear respirators must meet minimum physical capabilities. The hazardous conditions at job sites where respirators are worn must be monitored by specialized equipment. Documentation of all of these special program requirements must be kept for 30 years.
- Amenability: Comfort, convenience and style are items that also need to be considered when utilizing PPE. Valid or not, such concerns may influence whether employees use PPE. Non-use can easily translate into greater costs spent on enforcement to assure compliance, or on citation penalties incurred as a result of non-compliance.
- Totality: In selecting PPE to protect employees, extreme care must be taken to assure protection from identified hazards. In addition, employers need to be sure that no new hazard is created that causes harm to employees or co-workers. For example, hearing protection that is intended to screen out harmful noise levels may also prohibit an employee from hearing emergency warning signals. Fall protection harnesses and lifelines may prevent workers from falling, but these systems may also present tripping hazards where none existed previously.
- Reliability: In order for employees to be adequately protected from hazards, they must not only use equipment that is provided, they must use it properly. Improper use may increase the risk of harm and create a false sense of safety. For example, work gloves designed to decrease the likelihood of cuts to hands caused by contact with sharp edges, may increase the likelihood of crushing injuries to hands as that type of glove may get caught in machinery and pull hands into moving parts.
Training is the key to reliable protection in using personal protective equipment. Employees must know the risks and know how to use the equipment. The training must also include instruction on other aspects as well, such as the proper care, storage, maintenance, inspection and sanitation of the equipment.
In light of the factors outlined above, contractors should periodically re-evaluate the use of personal protective equipment as the preferred means to achieve workplace safety. On a project-by-project basis, the short-term costs may seem to justify its use. However, the long-term fiscal consequences associated with the risks of using PPE may lessen its benefit.
With advances in technology and innovations in business practices, alternative methods of eliminating hazards and/or containing the exposure to hazards should be explored. Short-term additional expenses incurred for such things as acquiring power tools with guards, installing automatic interlock switches on machinery or replacing engineering controls on ventilation systems may easily be outweighed by increased productivity. Long-term, utilizing systems that are less reliant on employee performance variables will keep insurance costs low.
Mary P. Hollins is owner of Hollins Risk Management Consulting, a Seattle-based firm specializing in helping companies control costs.
djc home | top | special issues index