Is your PPE doing more harm than good?

Is your PPE doing more harm than good?

By Gaby Grammeno on 9 October 2018 Mention work health and safety, and the image that pops into many people’s minds is of a worker decked out in mask, helmet, gloves, goggles and earmuffs.

Too often, this is what people think it’s all about. But in fact, personal protective equipment can be uncomfortable, restrictive and used in such a way that it is of no benefit whatsoever. It can even be harmful.

In most situations, personal protective equipment (PPE) should only be used as a last resort, or an interim measure, or in combination with other risk management strategies.

Examples of when PPE can be useless include wearing a dust mask (disposable particulate respirator) when the hazard is chemical vapours or gases (which are not filtered out by a particulate respirator); hearing protectors that do not provide the required degree of noise attenuation, or are ill-fitting or cracked around the edges; and having the seal between the face and the respirator undermined by a beard.

Examples of PPE causing harm include a person’s hand being drawn into a machine after a glove catches on moving parts (if possible gloves should not be worn around rotating machinery). A more common example is latex allergy – an allergic reaction to latex gloves. Latex allergy is reported to affect about 1% of the general population but up to 17% of health care workers exposed to latex. Allergic symptoms range from itching and dermatitis through hay-fever-like symptoms to anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.

Latex is used in hundreds of medical products such as stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs, catheters, bandages and intravenous tubing, but it is latex gloves that pose the main threat, especially the powdered type, which release powder containing latex allergens into the air every time they are put on or taken off.

More often, the harm is caused by the false sense of security from using the wrong PPE for a job.

For example, protection from noise-induced hearing loss often involves the use of hearing protectors (earmuffs or ear plugs). These are classified according to their capacity to attenuate sound. The effectiveness of the device is expressed in its noise reduction rating (NNR). So if a person is working in an area with an ambient noise level of 100 decibels (dB) and wearing protection with an NNR of 33 dB, the person’s actual noise exposure would only be reduced by 13 dB so they would still be exposed to 87 dB, which is a lot more deafening than 85 dB (the legal noise exposure limit for an 8-hour shift).

The decibel scale is such that it corresponds roughly with a doubling of perceived loudness with every rise of six to 10 decibels (a subjective factor makes this difficult to measure), so exposure to 87 dB is a great deal louder than the legal limit and would certainly damage hearing through prolonged exposure. Yet in this hypothetical situation, both the employer and the worker would believe they were doing the right thing, providing and wearing ear plugs.

Employers’ obligations

A focus on PPE should never be allowed to displace the ‘big picture’ identification of risks and prevention strategies. But if other means of controlling the risks are really not feasible or not reasonably practicable, or they don’t reduce the risk adequately, then PPE should be selected as appropriate.

Employers should consult with their workers when selecting PPE, and the process of selection should be undertaken with care and attention to detail. The PPE must be suitable for the nature of the work and the hazard. This means that an employer must have an accurate understanding of the hazard. In the case of a noise hazard, for example, there is no substitute for having the noise levels measured by the relevant professional – an occupational hygienist.

A hygienist’s advice would generally be required to advise on protection against chemical hazards, as well.

PPE must also be of a suitable size and fit for the individual who will have to use it, and it must be reasonably comfortable. Uncomfortable PPE will often be underused.

Proper maintenance of PPE is just as important as careful selection. All PPE should be clean and hygienic and in good working order. ‘Good working order’ means, for instance, recognising that an old dust mask clogged with dust is no use, as most of the air the person inhales will be sucked in through the tiny gaps between the edge of the mask and the skin of the face. Maintaining things in good order may require a schedule for inspection and replacement of PPE, allocation of responsibilities, training of supervisors and monitoring to ensure the system is working as intended.

Employers also need to provide anyone using PPE with information and instruction on the hazard and risk, make sure they understand the necessity for fitting and using it properly and for proper storage and maintenance.

The employer must provide and pay for PPE unless it has already been provided by another employer, such as a labour hire company.


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