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Beneath the surface

24 August 2023

This year's PPE survey gets beneath the surface of and reveals the thoughts and opinions of those who really matter – the users and buyers of PPE. Kelly Rose looks at the results.

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

Again, we were overwhelmed with the response and with a real mix of job titles across all the industry sectors we can really get a good feel for what is happening in PPE. 

This year we had 37% of respondents in a health and safety manager role, 21% are health and safety officers and 11% are consultants. While 16% of our surveyors selected one of the other job titles that were included on the survey – such as a director or an engineer, 15% came into the 'other' category and we have a real mix of job titles such as fire officer, trainer, union reps and health and safety officers – so we are able to obtain opinions on the PPE industry from a variety of responsibilities and across many industries too.

Industry wise, yet again we had the most responses from the construction and manufacturing sectors – but this year they switched places with 23% of those surveyed being from the construction industry. Manufacturing (22%) was our second highest industry and educational (7%). Other sectors are also represented but make up a smaller piece of our research – we received input from some in the following industries: transport, warehousing, food and beverages and medical. 

This year we added a new question as we wanted to get a feel of whether our respondents were users, purchasers or specifiers of PPE. Users of PPE made up 24% of our survey, specifiers were 19%, purchasers 10% and 48% were all of these.

Now we have a good indication of our surveyors, we can start to look at what the thoughts are when it comes to PPE. The first question we asked was 'What considerations are important to you when you are when sourcing PPE?'

This year the program we used to collect our responses enabled surveyors to drag the fields into the order of importance. This means that unlike last year, we don't have a percentage result, we have a score. The results are as follows:

  • Performance to claimed standards 165 
  • Functionality 129 
  • Comfort 127 
  • Image 109 
  • Through Life Cost 81 
  • Maintenance 69 
  • Range 66 
  • Unit cost 66

The top three results are exactly the same as last year. A major change to this year's results is the climb of image. Whereas last year it was ranked bottom – this year it is in fourth place. We did have some new fields this year such as unit cost, range and through life cost – so the results can't be directly compared to the previous survey. 

It is good to see that cost is not driving these decisions, but when cost does become a factor, the through life cost is more important than the unit cost.

We also included an option for 'other' with a box for individuals to indicate what else was important to them. Key things came up here, such as compatibility and female fit. One consultant rightly pointed out that they want “PPE for ladies - we have curves and bumps that men don't - one size does not fit all!”

Jonas Andersson, GORE-TEX Professional Associate commented, “It’s reassuring that ‘performance to claimed standards’ and ‘functionality’ ranked as the top the top two most important attributes for sourcing PPE by the cohort. 

“We are starting to see a clear trend whereby the workwear sector is moving away from ‘fast fashion’ lesser quality products - which potentially don’t provide the adequate safety protection required, and towards more durable and functional product solutions which last longer. This is better for the end users safety, makes financial sense for the employer and also helps the environment as durable products need replacing less often.

“At Gore we always test the durability and performance of our products to not only meet but in many cases exceed the specific requirements of a given standard. High performance standards and durability of products is key to providing lasting quality and protection.”

Donald Gillespie, director of insights and growth at Unigloves said, “From a hand protection perspective, Unigloves is delighted that respondents put the user experience very high on the list of priorities. Of course, any PPE must comply 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.

“For more complex PPE, such as hand protection – where gloves will play a vital role in protecting against chemical, mechanical, electrical and thermal hazards – the capability to protect against the specific risks encountered is vital. But functionality is also critical, covering many performance measures, including grip, flexibility, dexterity and the particular levels of chemical, cut and electrical resistance. These have to be considered in the PPE selection process.”

We moved along to ask 'what do you look for from your supplier?' proving a list of options that needed putting in priority order. The order of priority was Quality Products (204), Capable Staff (147), Ethically Concerned (142) and Registered Safety Supplier Scheme (RSSS) (134).

Alfonso Fernandez, marketing manager, fall protection, at MSA Safety says, “These results are particularly interesting as they show that price is not within the top three factors for consideration. Rather, the quality of the PPE and reliability is favoured, along with the amount of knowledge a manufacturer can offer to their customers. What this shows is that product quality and the ability to help a customer make an informed decision is of greater importance than the financial outlay.”

Donald Gillespie's comments to the results of this question were, “In today’s competitive environment, it was no surprise to see ‘Quality products’ as the top answer. Unigloves sees 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.

“At Unigloves, we know the benefits of being a BSIF Member by demonstrating a solid commitment to safety and ethical trading, so it’s reassuring to see that this type of membership is looked for by health and safety professionals.”

Mark Dowling, divisional managing director at Tower Supplies, was surprised that RSSS did not rank higher. He said, “It’s disappointing to see RSSS way down in fourth place. After all, a BSIF RSSS member supplier covers 'all of the above'. They will have declared that they distribute quality products and have BSIF trained and capable staff committed to being ethical. My concern is that these results suggest that we have all become a touch complacent about the label and need to remind people about the trusted value and the meaning of being a BFIS RSSS member.”

Facing obstacles 

So, let's take a look at what the biggest obstacles are when sourcing PPE. Respondents were invited to cite their opinion and there are no surprises here. Availability was the most common obstacle and cost was followed close behind.

Many replies cited that sizing was an issue with more options for females mentioned a lot. Here are some or the answers we received.

“Personally speaking, female PPE, especially footwear. It is a real bug bear of mine, that for the 20 years of working in industry, if I need Cat 3 the choice for female footwear gets less and often IO end up looking at mens. This isn't ideal for females who have narrow feet. Just really frustrating when women do the same high risk roles and enter the same high risk premises!”

“Sizing for women (pink it and shrink it does not work)”

“Lack of women's PPE - e.g. clothing that is tailored to a women's fit as it is not the same as men's. Also, PPE which is breathable in the summer”

One person mentioned their biggest obstacle was fake PPE. While this can be a problem as there is an increase in fake PPE out in the marketplace, the solution is to use a Registered Safety Supplier Scheme member as companies displaying the scheme’s logo have signed a binding declaration that the safety equipment they offer meets the appropriate standards, fully complies with the PPE regulations and is appropriately CE marked.

When we asked 'what could your PPE supplier be doing to make the procurement process smoother?' having a wider range and holding more stock were the most mentioned answers. Better communication – especially when it comes to delays – would also be welcome, but overall most of those surveyed were happy with their provider so couldn't comment on this.

We wanted to find out more about what training is going on in relation to PPE, so we asked 'do you train staff using PPE and if so how?'. While we did get some responses saying training was not taking place, it could be that this question wasn't relevant to these individuals or that they weren't responsible for the training. 

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that “If PPE is required, employers must ensure their workers have sufficient information, instruction and training on the use of PPE.” So let's take a look at how the training is taking place. 

Many have training as part of their induction and is also good to see that 'refresher' training and 'quarterly' training are used by some to reinforce thse learnings. Some companies have PPE suppliers coming in to deliver training, Talkbox Talks are a popular choice and many have in-house trainers too.

Obviously training needs vary depending on the requirements. One pointed out that “most PPE we use is standard and doesn't require training e.g. gloves / safety boots etc. However some specific PPE e.g. RPE / Fall Arrest Harness etc. are a trained piece of kit and therefore they do require training.”

This moves nicely onto our next question which was 'if you use or supply RPE, do you understand the need for face fitting? This year, 90% said yes, and considering that last year 71% of respondents said they understood the need for face-fit testing, so it’s good to see the message is getting out there. There is still work to be done though.

Tracy Vernon, director of marketing & communications at Shawcity Limited, said, ”It’s great to see a significant increase in the percentage of those surveyed who use or supply RPE understanding the need for face fit testing. 

“In 2023 that number was 71%, which has risen in 2024 to 90%. That shows that the message is achieving better success at reaching the right audience.

“ Shawcity is a member of the BSIF Respiratory Protection Special Interest Group. One current campaign – ‘Clean Air? Take Care!’ - is a joint initiative between the BSIF and the HSE.

“The campaign is run in partnership with industry organisations and trade associations to highlight the problem of respiratory disease and promote sensible solutions for respiratory protection in the workplace. 

“One of the main challenges is education and making sure guidance is straightforward and gets through to the end user. 

“Breathing hazards can include dusts, fibres, fumes, sprays, mists and biological agents. If RPE is needed as part of a respiratory protection programme, there are several solutions available and all, except powered respirators with loose-fitting hoods, require a face fit test.

“Further information is available on the HSE website or at www.fit2fit.org, which offers information on different types of fit testing, as well as a register of accredited face fit testers.”


Moving away from training and towards innovation, we asked where you see the most innovation taking place in PPE. Again this year, RPE was the most popular choice with 18%. Gloves came in at 16% and ear protection and protective clothing took joint third spot with 14% each. 

David Head, head of marketing at Draeger Safety UK commented, “As a manufacturer of PPE, including respiratory protection equipment (RPE), it is very interesting that the HSM research findings show that RPE is the area where people are seeing the most innovation in this sector. We’ve seen significant recent developments in innovation, particularly related to the fit and wearer comfort, largely driven by Covid. 

“Post-pandemic there has been a noticeable appreciation of the significance RPE in both industrial environments and the emergency services. Additionally, there’s far greater awareness of the impact of wearing equipment for long periods of time, and this has led to a greater focus on improving comfort for the wearer.

“A good example of innovation in this area are the design advances seen in powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) resulting in greater suitability for extended periods of use. They generally rely less on facial fit since they deliver filtered air to the breathing zone through a hose or helmet, reducing the dependency on achieving a perfect fit and also making them suitable for operators with beards.

“Advancements to help reduce heat and moisture build-up (especially important in hot and humid environments, or during physically demanding tasks) as well as longer battery life and the development of better diagnostic testing and user-alarms have also all contributed to better equipment on the market in recent months.

“This is definitely an area to watch. RPE is poised for further innovation in areas such as interoperability with diverse personal protective equipment (PPE) setups, making for more flexible uses and applications - for example where a user might require simultaneous eye or head protection while using RPE and disposable hood and visors for PAPRs to enable safe usage in more challenging environments, such as those involving potential exposure to substances like sewage.”

Mark Dowling commented, “Although the survey separates the options into product types (with RPE coming on top again), I see the biggest innovations coming in broad categories such as Female PPE and Sustainable PPE. We are already seeing dramatic increases in the number of products available for each gender and PPE with sustainable credentials (and sustainable packaging!). This is becoming increasingly more widespread to help businesses achieve their goals and supply their teams with PPE that’s fit for purpose.”

Some respondents agreed with Mark – one consultant in the manufacturing industry selected 'other' for this question and said they wanted “PPE designed for ladies" and the lack of it is "a blocker to attracting staff into this industry!” Other responses said most innovation would be in sustainable PPE.

Donald Gillespie said, “It’s rewarding to see hand protection selected as one of the most innovative PPE categories. Unigloves latest innovations include biodegradable nitrile gloves and a sustainable industrial glove range providing wearers with high levels of comfort and protection.”

Next we asked, 'where you go to find information on PPE?' and respondents were able to select more than one option. Top choice was manufacturer/distributor (35%), industry magazine and their websites came in second (20%), membership associations (14%), trade bodies (10%) and educational conference (7%).

On this, Oli Willson, GORE-TEX Professional footwear associate had this to say, “Every established and responsible PPE supplier or manufacturer should always have open and honest communication between themselves and their purchasers. This should also extend to knowledge sharing with end users. So, the fact that industry suppliers are the first port of call when procurement officers are looking to refresh, upgrade or consider adopting new products or technology is no surprise.”

Alfonso Fernandez added, “We’ve always believed that knowledge and education is key for manufacturers to provide. These results also prove that various touch points are important when informing a range of different people, as well as having the information available on our website. Equally, this shows that information in many forms, such as webinars, are useful to customers and cater to a variety of different learning types.”

Adding to this, Gillespie said, “35% of respondents said they would go to a manufacturer, distributor or supplier for information on PPE. At Unigloves, our experienced and knowledgeable customer service team is happy to provide customers with the necessary information. We field all types of enquiries, varying from product scores and performance to where to buy.”

We moved the survey along to look at standards and legislation and we asked, 'are there any areas in PPE where you think standards and legislation could be improved?' 38% said yes and gave their thoughts on this and there's a real pick and mix for me to choose from to give you examples. I think most areas that you could possibly think of were mentioned here. Arm protection, back support belts, better control of fake PPE, more comfortable hard hats ….. these are to name just a few. Many were concerned about the importation of goods and wanted regulations tightened up around this, while others wanted electrical arc flash PPE improved and audible testing equipment, which can be used to identify when someone isn't wearing their hearing protection appropriately, was mentioned too – so there wasn't anything that really stood out with many stating the same thing, but there were lots of ideas here and it was interesting to see our respondents' wish lists. 

We also asked 'Do you know what the UKCA mark is, and when it will be used in the context of PPE?' 24% admitted they didn't know and this was only a weak improvement on the previous year's results where 28% said they did not know.

Nadia Haynes, senior category manager, RS Safety Solutions commented, “UKCA mark is known and there’s been a lot of campaigns to explain what it means. However, the government has changed the rules several times around UKCA/CE marking over the last few years, including an indefinite change to CE marking acceptability in the UK recently, which is muddying the waters and confusing end-users while also increasing costs and complexity for PPE suppliers unnecessarily.”


The last section of the survey focused on sustainability and we asked if you are seeing Green Claims for PPE – and 74% of you are not. We then asked if you challenge the veracity of these claims and if so how. Only 21% of the 26% who are seeing green claims are challenging them – so let's take a look at how. 

Some are studying and searching the claims, others are asking for verification and auditable evidence. Although most of you are trusting of these claims, after all 79% those who see green claims are not challenging them, some admit to doubting the claims, one said “I treat all such marketing claims with scepticism.”

Donald Gillespie says, “With a response rate of 74% saying No, we have more work to do to increase awareness of the sustainability practices that occur across the industry. At Unigloves, we are passionate about protecting the environment and have an active Sustainability programme. Our factories in Malaysia have reduced their CO2 emissions and minimised water consumption. Unigloves is a full member of the Ethical Trade Initiative, alongside just two of our peers in the PPE industry and have reduced plastic in our packaging.”

Ryan Plummer, senior director of RS Safety Solutions said, “There are a lot of new claims for ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ PPE, but the messaging really is mixed, and it’s incredibly difficult to understand if there truly is a ‘green’ benefit to a product claim. The good news is that most companies and manufacturers making these claims are doing so for the right reason, but there remains a question mark over whether there really is a benefit to the environment.”

It's fantastic to see that recycling old PPE, where possible, is becoming more widespread amongst our surveyors. Of course, there is still work to be done as too much is still going to landfill. Contaminated PPE aside, we all need to do better to make sure we recycle or make better use of it than just sending it for disposal. One responder said they used some of their old PPE for training purposes.

Most were not sure if sustainability would drive trends going forward, however, of those who do, the main thoughts were on less plastic, longer lasting products and less packaging. 

Our next question was 'In your opinion are written user instructions needed with every piece of PPE?' and 64% said they are. 

Senior category manager at RS Safety Solutions Nik Rilatt commented, “User instructions should be available for every piece of PPE ever supplied but, at the moment, that is done physically with the product. This alone means that, legally, there has to be printed instructions of use for every single commercially available unit of measure sold as PPE. Some of the user instruction booklets are dozens of pages long, due to multiple languages, and have to be shipped with every product, so there is an enormous amount of waste. 

“I would like to see user instructions be marked on every single product or packaging as a QR code, with a direct link to the instructions, as this would be a magnificent green story with provable benefits to the environment. It would also remove significant wastage at the customer sites. As an example, if a customer is purchasing cut gloves from us and they are using 10,000 pairs a year and we sell these as pairs, they will receive 10,000 sets of user instructions. Assuming this is two lots of A4 pages, that’s 20,000 pieces of paper – around 104kgs of paper just on this one product. Is it really going to be read 10,000 times? Would a QR code suffice with industry training? Probably! Perhaps the compromise is by looking at different risk categories and ensuring physical copies only come with Cat III and possibly Cat II products. One thing is for sure: this needs to change without compromising the users’ safety.”

Alan Murray, CEO of BSIF, took the time to view the results of this year's PPE survey and he had this to say, “Congratulations to HSM and PPE Insights, for once again going to the market and seeking user opinion on PPE. This is valuable insight which helps suppliers support the needs of duty holders in keeping workers safe and healthy. It is really encouraging to see that many PPE specifiers really demand quality product that meets performance claims in the work environment and provides the necessary comfort and functionality for wearers. Scoring very strongly in questions about what users look for, we see that “quality product from capable suppliers” is front and centre. Having capable suppliers like those in the RSSS, will help users make more informed choices when selecting PPE. This can only help safety!

“It was interesting to see that a large percentage of responders thought written user instructions were necessary, especially when there are many digital alternatives which can provide much more information. A great deal of PPE used by wearers is also a like-for-like replacement to the product they used the day or the week before and the belief is that it is unlikely that users will re-read instructions for a “fresh item” they are given. However, I do note that some responders admit that they do not train users in the use of PPE (which is a legal requirement) and therefore perhaps that links to a desire to retain user instructions for wearers. The problem of Greenwashing was raised and I suspect that is a challenge which will only increase.

“Finally from my point of view I note that 24% state that they didn’t understand UKCA! Given recent announcement by the Government it is easy to see why that is however, there is plenty of advice available from BSIF at www.bsif.co.uk.”

Obtaining the thoughts and opinions of those purchasing and using PPE is vital as it provides supplier and manufacturers with information so they can continue to improve PPE and educate those using it. There are areas that definitely need improving, for example, we want to see more training taking place in the use of PPE, so that everyone using it, is using it correctly – so that everyone gets home safely at the end of their working day.

Kelly Rose is editor of Health & Safety Matters magazine. For more information, visit www.hsmsearch.com