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Not all PPE is created equal

07 April 2016

HSM speaks to Neil Hewitt, divisional director, Quality and Technical Standards at Arco about the issues of non-compliant, CE marked, personal protective equipment and the steps the industry needs to take to minimise the risk of these products entering into the European market.

Neil, what’s your role at Arco?

As divisional director, Quality and Technical Standards, it’s my responsibility to verify our own label products to make sure that they do what they claim to do and protect people from the risks they face in the workplace. This means ensuring they meet all the required technical standards, are fit for purpose, are sourced ethically and are tested for conformity on an ongoing basis as part of our due diligence programme.

Are you aware of products on the market that don’t meet the required standards?

As most of us in the safety industry know, all personal protective equipment (PPE) should be CE marked under the directive. However, recent tests that we have carried out in our own Product Assurance Laboratory have indicated that some of the products you assume to be safe, may not actually be fit for purpose.

What exactly have you found?

There appears to be procedural weaknesses within the EC type approval and CE marking process. These weaknesses could allow a less reputable manufacturer or importer to gain CE certification for products they want to market, and subsequently make changes to the product, changes which could impact the product’s safety performance. Although manufacturers of Category three PPE are required to have a third party monitoring process in place for the actual product or a quality management system, there is no similar requirement for Category one or two PPE. It is up to the manufacturer to ensure the product continues to conform to the standards.

This is a pretty serious claim, what did you do when you identified these issues?

As soon as we had a set of credible results, we notified the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF). They recognised the seriousness of this issue and wrote to its members saying: ‘This situation poses an obvious risk to end users, and is a timely reminder that only relying on CE certification for certain product types is no guarantee of ongoing quality assurance’. The BSIF called on all those in the industry to make certain their supply chain routes are fully aligned to provide safe, legal and fit for purpose PPE. With representation on the BSIF’s Federation Council, we also take these issues very seriously.

Can you give an example of products that you’ve found to fail?

An example of these failures came to light when we performed a number of tests on safety footwear toecaps, products at the front line of safety across a wide range of industries. Traditionally toe caps were made from steel to ensure toes weren’t crushed in an accident, but non-metallic materials have entered the marketplace. These non-metallic toe caps do offer a number of advantages in terms of their lightweight design and the ability to minimise disruption in security and specialist manufacturing areas, where metal detection is required.

We found that some of the non metallic toe caps are constructed using composite glass fibre and others are injection moulded thermoplastics. It became apparent that the safety footwear using some injection moulded plastic toe caps in their construction performed significantly worse under compression testing, than the fibreglass composite toe caps.

What does that mean for someone wearing a boot with this type of thermoplastic toecap?

Unfortunately, it could mean a very serious injury. If the foot is compressed, these substandard toes caps would not protect the wearer as intended, with resultant injuries being broken bones or even amputation.

What should those looking to buy or source safety footwear do to make sure they buy products that are going to perform and protect properly?

Identifying true product compliance is difficult for the user. The responsibility falls to the manufacturer, who may not have the resources in place to ensure regular testing. Anyone who has concerns over the safety of the equipment they are being supplied should follow these steps:

  • Ask your suppliers for a declaration of conformity that shows original certification for the PPE you are purchasing
  • Ask your suppliers to define their process for sample testing to ensure safety products continue to meet the required standards
  • Ensure your suppliers are members of the BSIF Registered Safety Supplier Scheme
  • Ask your suppliers to define their process of quality assurance at the manufacturing facility to ensure the products are being manufactured as they were originally certified
  • Always buy from a trusted source.

What is Arco doing about this?

The use of a thermoplastic toe caps in safety footwear construction is not immediately evident and purchasers are relying on the CE mark being accurate. This worrying issue has compelled us to assure our customers that we do not allow the use of substandard thermoplastic toe caps in the construction of our own brand products. We have also highlighted the issue to all proprietary footwear brands in our catalogue and have requested they confirm the type of toe cap used within their footwear.

We are also members of the BSIF Registered Safety Suppliers Scheme (RSSS). 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. As a manufacturer, importer and distributor and being very close to the market, we recognise our responsibility to be involved in market surveillance activity carried out by the competent authorities. We are prepared to participate actively with the authorities and provide all necessary support and information.

What can the industry as a whole do to avoid a potentially dangerous situation?

The UK has a strong health and safety record, of which we are very proud. As a member of the BSIF’s RSSS and with safety at the forefront of everything we do, we will continue to lead the campaign, working with the BSIF, to raise the standards of compliance in the UK. As an industry, we must work together. Manufacturers, importers and distributors need to have the necessary measures in place to ensure that the products they supply are capable of doing the job intended for. Purchasers need to remain vigilant to safeguard your workers.