Evaluating Personal Protective Equipment—Three Questions to Ask Yourself

My colleague and good friend Stewart Hall, a Safety Management Consultant at MEMIC, sent along some great points on Personal Protective Equipment the other day and I thought it was important to share them.

Evaluating personal protective equipment (PPE) is an often overlooked skill.  Employers are required to provide PPE and they must train employees, not only how to use the gear but its limitations as well. But it shouldn’t stop there.  Training employees on PPE is only the first step toward insuring that this equipment will do its job when and if needed.  Generally, when evaluating PPE, you should start with these three questions:

1. Does the personal protective equipment meet an industry standard?
2. Is the personal protective equipment in serviceable condition?
3. Is the personal protective equipment being worn consistently in the field?

All PPE must meet industry standards. This should include verification of standards that are used by legitimate testing entities. For example, head protection must be tested and rated by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and eye protection must meet an ANSI standard (Z87.1-2003). A pair of fashionable sunglasses and the helmet you got during Helmet Day at Fenway Park may look cool, but provide little protection.

All PPE must be in serviceable condition. This refers to the equipment’s ability to perform as the manufacturer intended.  There are a number of reasons to take PPE out of service-- cracked helmets, chainsaw leg protection that has been struck by a rotating chainsaw chain, footwear with an exposed steel toe or worn treads to name a few.  When this gear is used everyday it is bound to suffer the rigors of an unforgiving environment. Although I should add that in many instances PPE is rendered out of service because of poor storage, improper use, and lack of care.  PPE can work, and work well, but only if management and employees understand the importance of daily inspections and a healthy respect for the equipment that may save life or limb.

Finally, an equally important component of evaluating PPE is looking at whether the gear is being used when it’s needed.  This can only happen if management has conducted an evaluation of the hazards inherent in all job duties and combined it with a commitment to holding employees accountable to industry best practices and compliance standards. When all is said and done, proper eye protection labeled to meet industry standards and in serviceable condition are of little value if they are on the dashboard of the service vehicle or lying on a work bench while the employee works unprotected.

The ANSI website does require a membership to really dive into it, but there are several other options for gathering PPE information. OSHA offers a free fact sheet and the National Safety Council offers training information regarding PPE. If you have any ‘go-to’ sites for PPE, please feel free to share.