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PPE in focus

10 August 2021

The Covid pandemic has put the spotlight on PPE and highlighted its importance. This year's eye-opening survey reveals the thoughts and opinions of people at the cutting edge of PPE. Kelly Rose looks at the results.

THE IMPORTANCE of PPE is recognised around the world and this was highlighted more than ever before during the Covid-19 pandemic as countries battled with the surge in demand and the shortage in supply. 

Unfortunately, when something is in huge demand there is a surge in non-compliant, substandard and even counterfeit products and that has certainly been true of PPE. It is imperative that buyers and users know what to look for when it comes to their selection – as if it has not been conformity assessed and certified then it will not offer the protection required. It is true that PPE is a worker's last line of defence. When all other attempts to control the hazard and mitigate the risks have been insufficient then it is the PPE that can protect the worker – so ultimately, the PPE needs to be effective – and if products are counterfeit then they won't do their required job. It also needs to be readily available to employees and workers need to be trained in its use.

Health and Safety Matters's annual PPE survey gives our readers the opportunity to have their say on PPE and it always provides interesting results – we also put these results to manufacturers for their comments. So, let's look at the results.

The number of respondents to this year's survey was up 14% on last year, giving us an even broader range of views from across the health and safety sector. Some 55% of the respondents comprised of health and safety officers and managers, while 13% are at director level.

The top industries in terms of where the respondents work were manufacturing (23%), construction (20%) and training and education (9%) so again we were delighted to receive feedback across a broad spectrum.

The first question we asked was 'what considerations are important to you when sourcing PPE?' There were nine options and we asked for the top four from the following: Performance to claims, compliance to regulation and standards, functionality, comfort, image, sustainability, maintenance, availability and cost.

Compliance matters

Reassuringly, compliance and performance to claims took the top spot – with 89% of those surveyed selecting this as their priority. Functionality (71%) was second, with comfort (58%) and availability (51%) following closely behind. The remaining results were maintenance (36%), sustainability (25%) and respondents were least concerned with image (4%).

Peter Dumigan, managing director of the Hultafors Group UK, commented, “This snapshot is very encouraging from the perspective of the Hultafors Group’s PPE brands - all of which focus on Functionality, Comfort and Performance – Compliance is a given.

“Cost comes quite low down in the order of importance, but is this really true? Too often we see excellent products rejected in favour of lower quality items simply because they are more expensive, so perhaps this survey is an indication of good intentions rather than the real world?

“Buyers have traditionally focussed on price in their specification and tendering processes, but given today’s corporate sustainability requirements as well as corporate carbon footprint messaging, it’s important that buyers use a broader lens to focus on the best all-round product solutions for their PPE needs.”

Donald Gillespie, marketing director at Unigloves says, “Certainly, from a hand protection perspective, we are delighted to see that respondents are putting the user experience very high on the list of priorities. Of course, any PPE needs to be compliant with the hazards it is designed to protect against in line with legislation. But to see functionality and comfort score second and third, given their vitality in enabling workers to work effectively and efficiently for long shifts, is really pleasing.”

Alfonso Fernandez, marketing manager Europe at MSA Safety, says, “These trends are great to see. The fact that compliance to regulation is at the very top of people’s agenda demonstrates the priority placed on meeting standards to keep people safe. This should always be of the utmost importance. It's also encouraging to see functionality and comfort second and third, with cost towards the bottom. This illustrates what we've always said: you can't put a price on safety. Plus, the safest PPE is PPE that workers will actually want to wear because a) it works seamlessly (i.e., it's functional) and b) it's comfortable. Increasingly, image is becoming more and more important. As is, of course, sustainability. It'll be interesting to see where these both sit in next year's survey.”

Top quality

Next, we asked 'what do you look for from your supplier'. Respondents were asked to put them in order of their most important. The options and the results were Quality Products (90%), Knowledgeable Staff (48%), Registered Safety Supplier Scheme (RSSS) (36%) and Ethically Concerned (21%).

Mark Dowling, director of marketing at Tower Supplies has an excellent point when it comes to this question. He says, “Register Safety Supplier scheme (RSSS) members can fulfil all of the other important attributes of a supplier and therefore being a RSSS member could be the number one criteria. BSIF RSSS member declare that their products will meet required quality standards and are subjected to an annual audit. Members can enrol staff on the Safe Supply Accreditation to prove knowledge with an OFQUAL examination. Ethical concerns are evaluated by RSSS members who follow compliance protocol that underpins the scheme dictum: Anyone can sell safety, but you wouldn’t buy safety from anyone.”

Donald Gillespie added, “We are pleased that respondents have highlighted quality products as the main criteria when selecting a supplier. We are certainly seeing increasing numbers of people involved in the PPE selection process, understanding the added value in working with leading companies that base their whole approach from product manufacture to customer support.”

The survey moved along to ask 'what are the biggest obstacles you face when sourcing PPE?'. The respondents were asked to cite their opinion, rather than select from our options – and there were no surprises here. Availability was the biggest obstacle – no surprise given the pandemic – with 27% mentioning it. Cost came in second (13%).

Quality was another buzz word for this question with one respondent noting that their main obstacle is 'getting clients to invest in only the best. Cheap Eastern alternatives are undermining quality and performance.'

PPE for women

When it comes to selection for female workers, one surveyor said, 'As we acquire a more diverse workforce, we find that many manufacturers have fallen into providing standard men's sizes only. Helmets, boots and gloves being the most common issues we have had to overcome'. Another added that their issue was 'availability and fit - particularly for gender specific items.'

Sarah Baker, marketing director at JSP commented, “We have designed a range of safety helmets to be lighter in weight with fully adjustable harnesses to ensure a good safe fit for all genders, Sonis Compact ear defenders to be lighter and slimmer so they feel balanced when worn on a smaller head, and smaller frame safety spectacles with special features like adjustable memory foam temples to allow the spectacles to adapt and adjust perfectly.”

When asked 'what could your PPE suppliers be doing to make the procurement process smoother?' the most common word in the responses was stock – no surprise considering availability was the biggest obstacle. Most replied that suppliers need to hold more stock and to have a better range, and one said they wanted 'better availability of stocks geographically in the UK with additional manufacturing capability outside of China'. Responders felt that it would be helpful if they were advised when stocks were running low.

Many pointed out that they wanted websites to have clearer display of products on the RSSS register, and with the UKCA logo. One said, “Have clear documentation of the standards that products are. Sites have good information but when you look to purchase, the catalogue just gives things like colour to search for, not standards – which is the important bit.'

Training requirements

Moving onto training, question seven was: 'It is a legal requirement that your staff are trained in the use of PPE. How do you go about this?' A high proportion of the answers commented on the importance of induction training and Toolbox Talks. While every member of staff should always be training as part of their induction, it is reassuring that companies are also using Toolbox Talks, which are an informal discussion focussing on a particular safety issue, to reinforce proper use of PPE. 

Answers included 'Supplier tool box talks and on site H&S awareness and education regarding use and fitting of PPE',  'Induction and Tool box talks' and 'on induction and issue, they are trained how to use it. This is followed up with RAMS, toolbox talks and daily briefings'.

Training using physical demonstrations as well as the use of visuals around the site seems to be the trend. One respondent said, 'face fit testing for masks and education. All other PPE is trained at source via face2face sessions, tool box talks etc'.

So it is reassuring that all responders are taking training seriously and are topping up inductions with refresher training and in-house or external courses.

Although many responses for the question included the mention of Fit2Fit and face-fit-testing, our next question specifically asked: 'If you use or supply tight fitting RPE, how do you ensure that they are face fitted by a competent tester?'

It was pleasing to see that most are using approved accredited providers that can carry out fit testing while others have their own staff trained to carry this out. One pointed out, 'we are sent on regular refresher training on how to carry out face fit testing,' while another said 'Face Fit testers have undergone a training course to ensure correct testing procedures are being followed.'

While most of the respondents of this question (there is the option to skip the question if RPE is not used by the individual) provided me with confidence that companies are ensuring that their tight fitting RPE is fitted by a competent tester, there were a few concerning replies – including one that doesn't have the budget and another that would check if it was fitted properly by putting on the equipment and spraying air freshener to see if they could smell it. Another believes that if the operator puts it on themselves, then it fits. So, clearly more needs to be done to educate on the need of face fitting by a competent tester.

Legal requirement

Alan Murray, CEO at the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) says, “Face fitting of tight fitting RPE is safety critical and it is a legal requirement in the UK. A competent individual must carry out the process following HSE guidance. Home made, improvised methods are not safe and not acceptable.”

Moving onto innovation, we asked our survey takers what they would like to see in PPE. Masks came up quite a lot, with some mentioning this in terms of masks being used with eye protection. One said 'face masks designed so safety glasses do not fog up' and another wanting 'more Covid visor face coverings that are user friendly with people who wear glasses as I find this more a risk with steaming up of glasses.' 

Alan Murray commented,  “If glasses are steaming up when wearing tight fitting RPE this should be a red flag as it is a clear sign the there are gaps in the seal allowing exhaled breath to steam up the glasses. This indicates that the RPE does not fit the wearer and training on donning and wearing the mask is required.”

Masks for people with beards and also ones that fit women were also requested. On the issue of female fit, one said they wanted to see 'better fitting products for women and the use of renewable resources without compromising safety and comfort'. One said, 'better fitting for women and the use of renewable resources without compromising safety and comfort' while another added 'more women friendly PPE'. Adding to this one specifically wanted masks that will fit females, while another was more specific asking for 'Unvalved FFP3s for small female faces.'

Sarah Baker says, “As a manufacturer JSP realises the importance for PPE to properly fit all individuals regardless of gender or the size of the wearer’s head or face in order to offer the right protection rather than adopting the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality.

“This is particularly critical for respiratory protection equipment (RPE) where fit testing is required for all tight-fitting facepieces, including all filtering facepieces (disposable face masks), half masks and full face masks.

“In fact, we are the only UK manufacturer of respiratory protection to offer a half mask, the JSP Force8 PressToCheck mask in four different sizes, small, medium, large and short-wide. The JSP Force10 full face mask is also offered in small, medium and large.”

When it comes to the material of the PPE, many wanted to see lighter but stronger material. Alongside durability, wearers want more ethically sourced and sustainable items.

Other answers included wanting better hand protection, more light weight working at height hard hats and wearable technology.

So, there's a lot to be keeping the manufacturers busy! Although I am sure there is only so much they can do when it comes to making items lighter and more hard wearing without compromising protection.

We then asked, 'where do you go to find out information on PPE?' The results of our survey show that manufacturers/distributors are still the post popular with 89% going straight to the source. Also popular was industry magazines and their websites (58%) and membership organisations like BSIF (38%). Many commented that they turn to the HSE. 

Sourcing information

Some 35% of respondents are now turning to webinars to find information on PPE, compared to just 2% last year – which shows how important they became as a source of information during the pandemic, and I am certain they will continue to be used as an educational tool going forward. Educational conferences are also becoming increasingly popular with 17% finding these useful for information on PPE.

44% of respondents thought there are areas in PPE where they think standards and legislation can be improved. Here are some of the comments we received to this:  

  • Legislation on where & when Hi Viz should be worn could be less "grey" and more black/white

  • Imported PPE and regulation over "ebay and Amazon" sold PPE

  • Create a license for PPE sellers so they have a base level or knowledge as to what is required to be compliant and responsible suppliers. Make in mandatory for anyone selling PPE to have a license.

  • Needs to be more prescriptive - too many instances where 'grey' areas exist, thus giving easy avoidance. For example Control of Asbestos Regulations are specific Finally - please can we have in law, not bothered which, a definitive frequency for face fitting

  • Working at height equipment has to be made to a lot of different standards, could be more consolidated

For the second year running, we asked 'Do you know what the UKCA mark is, and when it will be used in the context of PPE?' 77% of respondents claim to know what it is which is an increase on the 61% last year – but there is still room for improvement.

Just to clarify – the UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA) mark is the conformity mark of the new regulatory regime that approves PPE for use in the UK now we have moved out of the European Union. UKCA will be used for GB. In Northern Ireland (NI) the UKNI mark will be used and CE will continue to be accepted.

Driving trends

With much of PPE being single use, sustainability is a concern for our readers. We asked 'how do you think sustainability will drive trends in PPE design and supply going forward?' Responses focused on more reusable alternatives to PPE and it is certain that it should have a big impact going forward, although some were concerned about what implication this would have on the price of the products they purchase.

Despite this concern about sustainability, some 68% feel that written instructions are still needed with every piece of PPE. While it was pointed out that they are a useful point of reference to ensure the product is used and cared for correctly as well as providing the manufacturer with legal cover. One said, 'This is essential in order to prove due diligence in a court hearing/trial'. Another summed it up perfectly noting that 'PPE is the last line of defence. It is essential that end user knows the right way to use the PPE.'

It is worth pointing out that training in the use of PPE is a legal requirement and that there are other methods, such as digital, which could be effectively utilised to deliver user instructions.

Alfonso Fernandez commented, “Whether PPE instructions are written or digital, the most important thing is them actually being read and understood. Every piece of equipment is different and may have slightly different instructions, so having a clear understanding of how PPE is used is obviously hugely important. PPE training is also essential. Users of PPE must be fully versed in, firstly, how to identify and mitigate risk, but secondly, how their PPE works and what its limitations are. Understanding and properly following user instructions, and regular quality training, are both fundamental to increasing worker safety." 

This survey is a real eye-opener into the thoughts and opinions of people at the sharp end of PPE. It is human nature to want improved products that offers more protection and it is reassuring that image and cost are at the bottom of the list when it comes to using this life saving protection. What we need to focus on is educating the wearers so that they know what is on offer, why it is important and that buying and wearing compliant PPE can save lives.

The pandemic has seen the profile of PPE increase dramatically and many more people now appreciate the vital role that it plays in safety and health. However, buyers and specifiers should still be aware that not all PPE is to the required standards, fit for purpose, comfortable product, designed with wearers in mind which can be worn with confidence. Selecting PPE must be a properly thought out process to ensure that quality product is sourced from capable suppliers.