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Heads together

12 August 2021

THE BSIF PPE conference, which is still available on demand, highlighted the importance of PPE as a control measure. Alan Murray highlights the key messages from the event.

THE PPE Insights publication is an ideal opportunity to remind ourselves of the PPE issues uncovered during the pandemic and an ideal platform to look beyond Covid. Following the tumultuous events of 2020 the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) and the Safety Industry chose to run a virtual conference to highlight the role of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as a control measure, in an effective safety and health policy, and indeed the efforts that exist in the market to ensure that quality fit for purpose product is provided through a capable supply chain. One outcome from the pandemic is the appreciation that there are unseen hazards that we face and there is now a better understanding of the role PPE can play in protecting workforces.

The date of April 28 2021 was chosen to coincide with the date, which would have seen us all together at the National, Health and Safety Event at the NEC which was due to postponed until the 7 September. April 28 was also the International Workers Memorial Day, so the timing seemed very apt.

Notwithstanding the specific date, the market had started to look forward with optimism to the return to work and with the events of 2020 raising the profile of PPE in the public consciousness it was the opportune time to remind ourselves of the way that things should be. The timing is also appropriate as we had arrived at the end of the product easements and derogations from the Regulation 2016/425. Further we are now out of the EU and faced with the ongoing challenges under the UK Conformity Assessment regime.

The early months of the pandemic and the breakdown of traditional PPE supply chains saw the influx of a huge amount of non-compliant product being imported by businesses with little or no knowledge of the Regulatory framework and during the year BSIF provided vital intel to the authorities, reporting over 350 products and traders who required investigation. This reporting went to the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Trading Standards (TS) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). MHRA was involved as there were many products which were crossing over in their purpose, between PPE and Medical Devices. All of the presentations from the 28 April can be viewed again by going to HSM Search at https://sees.evessiocloud.com/live/en/page/home and registering for the conference.

Following a short welcome by Alan Murray of the BSIF, the conference was opened by a keynote speech from Sarah Albon, chief executive of the HSE, who covered a review of their activities during the challenges of Covid and the day to day work involved in the HSE delivering on its Regulatory responsibilities, including the setting up of specific resources to bring policy and regulatory responsibilities into one unit. While highlighting the role that PPE plays in keeping workers safe Sarah also referenced the collaborative working between HSE and BSIF at several levels including participation in the BSIF Special Interest Groups (SIGs). The opening keynote led directly, in terms of message and content into the next session on market surveillance. The work undertaken by the HSE on Covid related PPE has led to the establishment of the new Product Safety Market Surveillance Unit (PSMSU).

Following the HSE chief executive we saw a joint session on market surveillance from the leads of the two responsible authorities HSE and TS. HSE are challenged with market surveillance of PPE when it is used at work, with that responsibility falling to TS when product is being supplied to “private individuals”. The HSE element was presented by Harvey Wild, Head of the HSE Virtual PPE Unit. The presentation outlined the current and future activities of HSE in this area. Harvey Wild explained the HSE’s role during Covid and the regulatory easements supported by a PPE triage and technical team underpinning the decision making unit who were charged with releasing only safe PPE to the market. Harvey told the audience that during this period the HSE had been agreed 895 requests for easement release and that 231 in-market investigations on non-compliant PPE had been and are being undertaken. So far there have been 18 withdrawal demands and 2 recall notices raised.

For Trading Standards, Vicki Burch of Hertfordshire TS, Primary Authority partner of BSIF spoke on the PPE Regulation and the involvement of TS. Vicki was keen to stress that in addition to the duty to enforce regulation TS also provided advice to wide ranging businesses on achieving compliance. The relationships with other TS organisations were outlined and the difficulty of achieving a national approach was stressed. During the presentation we saw detailed information on the PPE related work focussing first on the Covid items including KN95 masks, before the other general areas of activity were outlined including work on Motorcycle Clothing, Hand Protection, Safety Footwear and Cricket equipment, all in conjunction with BSIF.

The opportunity for the audience to hear directly from the market surveillance authorities was greatly appreciated as was their willingness to answer questions posed. However, there can be no doubt that a historically passive approach to enforcing regulatory compliance in PPE needs to change. It remains a concern that surveillance responsibilities for PPE are divided between HSE and TS as the supply channels do not differentiate between at work and private consumer and this leads to confusion.

The conference then heard about the situation that the industry faces through the presentation on the Registered Safety Supplier Scheme by Roy Wilders of the BSIF.

In his presentation Roy was clear on the role that quality PPE and capable suppliers play in effective safety and health management, a message that those in the industry know of course, but Roy brought this home by taking the audience back through the audit results of 2020 covering auditing and testing with members and with non-members. In the results of the audits we saw that even within the membership 15% of product audits resulted in non-compliances. Happily all these were quickly resolved and the members further invigorated in their commitment to self-policing. On the other hand when we looked at results from market testing with non-members, where BSIF have no opportunity to sanction, we see that the failure rate is 38% of the 98 products tested, and if we add in non-compliance due to missing documentation, as required by the Regulation, this failure level goes up to 100%. Roy then took the opportunity to report on what he called a “Super Market Sweep”, where he and a colleague, restricted to one hour, purchased 27 pieces of PPE across the product ranges, from on-line market places or trader’s own web sites, with 19 of these products found to be non-compliant. The challenge of on-line selling of PPE is the responsibility of the authorities but clearly their lack of success is leaving wearers exposed to risk of unsafe product. This presentation ended with a timely reminder that while anyone is allowed to sell PPE and safety products purchasers need to source intelligently, from capable suppliers.

RPE Face Fit Testing and the Fit2Fit Scheme overview was presented by Nick Baxter from the HSE Science Division, supported by Alan Murray of BSIF. The session covered why tight fitting Respiratory Protective Equipment must be fit tested, contrasting the HSE annual fatality figures of 111 deaths from workplace accidents with the 12,000 deaths a year from occupational lung disease. The session which included some informative videos covered what must be fit tested, why, the legal duties and what happens if a face mask does not fit a wearer. In the presentation an explanation was given as to the accepted methods of face fitting and the need to have these carried out competently.

The key messages of the morning sessions were taken forward to the afternoon keynote speech from Sarah Smith, deputy CEO of OPSS, the government agency who own policy for product safety in all sectors in this country. Sarah spoke of recent experiences and the situation of PPE hitherto an established product category supplied in the main through traditional channels and the new difficulties of this regulated category being supplied by new entrants, with no knowledge of the regulation or the product range they were marketing. Sarah reminded the audience that we are now in a post EU world and OPSS are looking for comment in the consultation on the future of the product safety framework. The opportunity to comment ended in June and OPSS are working thorough the results. The observation was put to Sarah that while the existing framework is believed to be fit for purpose its value is undermined by a light touch, passive approach to enforcement. Various other pertinent questions were raised which can be seen by looking back at the conference speech on the HSM website.

Continuing the theme of PPE in a post EU controlled UK market, Euan Fraser head of engineering and technical tervices at OPSS took the audience through the Regulators guide to UKCA and PPE, illustrating some helpful worked examples for both the GB and NI markets. 

Following on from the 2nd OPSS presentation of the day, the conference then heard from the Chairs of all of the BSIF Special Interest Groups (SIGS) which are involved with PPE. The members of the SIGs are drawn from across BSIF, and the groups are dedicated to work on standards development, issue resolution and the creation of guidance for end users who have chosen to utilise PPE as part of their safety and health management policies. The audience heard presentations from the chairs of the groups involved in protective gloves and clothing, eye face hearing and head protection, safety footwear, height safety and respiratory protection with a final presentation from the chair of the BSIF Test and Certification Association whose membership comes from the UKCA Approved Bodies and UKAS approved Test Houses, drawing the Regulatory requirements of PPE together.

A great session illustrating the value and dedication of these groups to safety provided by PPE and its proper use. The SIGs took the opportunity to highlight their work on guidance for end users.

This concluded a thought provoking day, highlighting the value of good PPE and the capability the market should expect from the supply chain.

April’s PPE conference was a timely reminder of the expertise within the BSIF membership that is dedicated to safety. Covid elevated the profile of PPE but the task of ensuring that only good quality product used to protect individuals remains and is as important as it ever was.

Alan Murray is chief executive at the BSIF. For more information, visit www.bsif.com