How compatible is your PPE?

22 September 2014

Across various industries, workers are exposed to a number of hazards and health risks, often simultaneously. Employers must identify and address the hazards that staff face on a day-to-day basis and consider whether different Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) items are compatible, before a purchasing decision is made, says Jim Lilley.

For example, a worker in the construction sector may need eye, head and respiratory protection at the same time. It is vital to recognise that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to workwear choices will not improve employee well-being or safety – if items cannot be used in unison and do not fit properly, then this could lead to inadequate protection against hazards.
Reviewing workwear regularly and understanding the specific protective features that are required to keep staff safe is a vital part of a responsible, modern management team.  Employers must adopt a proactive approach to identify new risks as they occur and utilise the expertise of their workforce to provide robust and holistic safety solutions.
Prioritising low cost over value is the first mistake an organisation can make when procuring PPE. It is a dangerous working mentality to believe that by buying cheap, a contract will be more profitable overall. This is especially worrying in industries where workers face a number of health and safety risks and without the right protection against hazards, this can lead to workplace accidents. Encouragingly, times are changing and many organisations are opting for the opposite and paying more for higher quality items, which provide greater comfort and are longer lasting. This is perhaps a sign of the times, and an up-turn in economy, where in the height of the recession it would have been tempting for employers to procure cheaply and replenish.
This shift in attitude, while still not completely irrespective of cost, can quickly improve business output as employees will no doubt embrace higher quality equipment. It is also important to note that as an employer you are legally responsible for protecting your employees against injury and providing a safe working environment. Failing to do this could leave you vulnerable to expensive workplace injury claims.
Employee engagement
When choosing PPE items, involving the workforce at an early stage helps to highlight potential hazards and areas where the staff themselves feel at risk. Regularly meeting with employees to find out which safety elements of their jobs require addressing through protective clothing will avoid compromising health and safety standards. It can be easy to get into a cyclical process of simply matching a workwear order to a previous one or adopting the mindset that one workwear solution will work for all employees but this will not encourage high levels of compliance.
Once potential hazards have been identified, there may be several types of PPE that will suffice in protecting against those risks. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) states that if more than one piece of PPE is being worn, then items must be compatible in order to adequately control the risks against which they are provided to protect.
Choose a head of compliance
It is therefore vital to involve workers before an order is made to decide whether there is more than one health and safety risk present which makes it necessary for an individual worker to wear PPE items simultaneously. Having a lead worker or a head of compliance that voices staff worries overcomes the time-constraints of employers having to speak with each person individually. 
Listening to employees and handing them responsibly will not only increase productivity but also ensure any changes are accepted more smoothly throughout the team. The procurement team must not overlook the importance of tailoring PPE items for individual fitting. Involving the head of compliance with regard to fit, comfort and suitability is likely to lead to better protection, less need for change and therefore a more cost-effective process. If PPE items fit the worker the first time round and provide sufficient protection, then this reduces the number of orders placed with suppliers. 
Ultimately, ensuring staff are highly engaged and supplied with compatible PPE will raise health & safety standards – the common denominator is consideration for the day-to-day tasks of workers. 
Jim Lilley is European health safety & welfare senior manager at Office Depot.