Determining how to protect employees from hazards is an essential part of every company’s safety program. It is very common for workers to need to wear more than one type of personal protective equipment (PPE) at one time to protect against multiple hazards they may encounter in their workplace. Ensuring that all the PPE is compatible, comfortable and will work as expected in protecting against the intended hazard is essential when selecting PPE for employees.
Depending on the hazard or conditions, OSHA recommends the use of engineering or administrative controls to manage or eliminate the hazards to workers. In the event engineering or administrative controls are not feasible or do not provide sufficient protection, employers must provide PPE to their employees and ensure it is used properly.
PPE should be selected in accordance with applicable OSHA regulations, recommendations of other recognized government entities such as NIOSH or industry consensus standards, such as those created by the American National Standards Institute. An assessment of site-specific conditions and input from the workers who will wear the PPE are necessary when making an initial determination of PPE requirements.
Prior to implementing PPE usage in a workplace, the employer is responsible for ensuring they are selecting the right PPE for employees to protect them from job- or task-specific hazards. For each job activity that may present a hazard, the employer must:
➤ Perform a hazard assessment.
➤ Determine the type of control necessary to help protect the worker from the hazard (e.g., engineering controls, administrative controls or PPE).
➤ Select and provide the appropriate PPE for each employee.
➤ Train each employee on the proper use of the PPE selected for him/her. At a minimum, employees who are required to wear PPE must know when and how to use it, how to don and doff it, how to maintain PPE and judge its life expectancy and when to replace it.
➤ Evaluate the effectiveness of the PPE program.
In addition to the employer, employees have certain obligations when PPE is provided to them. These include:
➤ Properly wearing and maintaining the PPE according to the instruction provided to them by their employer.
➤ Informing a supervisor if the PPE needs to be repaired, replaced or is not working properly.
Once the type of PPE needed is determined, the focus shifts to selecting the specific model. A well-designed product should have features that enhance fit and encourage compliance through increased worker comfort. Additionally, technical support provided by the manufacturer often is a valuable resource in selecting the right products and using them appropriately.
Like the hazards encountered in the workplace, there is a variety of PPE available on the market that is intended to help protect all the parts of a worker’s body. Trying to select multiple types of PPE that integrate together to protect workers can be a challenge. Nowhere is this more challenging than selecting multiple types of PPE to be worn on a person’s head. The following is a discussion of above-the-shoulders PPE including head protection (e.g. hard hat), hearing protection, eye and face protection and respiratory protection.
Types of PPE
Safety hard hats – An employer should select a hard hat that meets necessary impact and electrical insulation requirements of the ANSI Industrial Head Protection standard Z89.1. This standard describes the minimum physical and performance requirements for protective hard hats. These requirements are classified by impact type and electrical class.
A Type I hard hat provides certain protection from top impact. These are the most common hard hats in the industry. A Type II hard hat provides certain protection from top and lateral impact. These hard hats are used where there is higher risk from objects swinging and hitting the worker on the side of the head.
Electrical insulation requirements include Class C (Conductive), Class G (General) and Class E (Electrical). Class G and Class E helmets are proof-tested at 2,200 volts and 20,000 volts (phase to ground), respectively. However, it should be noted that these voltages are not intended as an indication of the voltage at which the hard hat protects the wearer.
The effectiveness of a hard hat can be affected by a blow or impact to the head, UV exposure, chemical exposure and abuse. Hard hats should be inspected frequently for damage and replaced immediately when damage is noticed.
Eye, head and face protection – The employer must assess the workplace and determine if hazards to the eyes and face are present before assigning PPE to workers. A properly conducted hazard assessment identifies routine and non-routine activities and tasks that have increased risk of exposure to eye and face hazards.
The hazard assessment should begin with a walk-through survey of the facility to develop a list of potential hazards and concerns such as impact (flying fragments, objects, large chips, particles, sand, dirt, etc.); dust (nuisance dust); chemical (splash and irritating mists); optical radiation-glareheat (hot sparks, splash from molten metal, high temperature exposure); optical radiation-welding (cutting, torch brazing, torch soldering); general lighting (fluorescent/incandescent, low light); and special applications (inspection, repair, detail work).
An employer should select eye and face protection devices that meet the ANSI/International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection Devices standard (ANSI Z87.1). The ANSI/ISEA Z87.1-2010 standard includes a pull-out selection chart, showing recommended protectors for various types of work activities that can expose the worker to hazards.
Hearing protection – In the United States, employers are required by OSHA to limit the 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) noise exposure to 90 dBA or less. Employees exposed at or above an 85 dBA 8-hour TWA must be enrolled in an employer-sponsored hearing conservation program, which includes annual audiometric testing and training.
There are a number of considerations when selecting an appropriate hearing protection device (HPD), such as earplugs or earmuffs. Hearing protector ratings, such as the noise reduction rating (NRR), provide information about the capability of the HPD to reduce noise exposures when worn correctly. Worker-specific factors also should be taken into account, such as the ability of workers to insert earplugs and the cleanliness of their hands, as well as the work environment itself, which could affect workers’ ability to fit certain types of HPDs.
Comfort is as important as any other factor when selecting an HPD because at the end of the day, the HPD that is worn the most during excessive noise exposure is the one that will provide the most protection. Research suggests that many users will receive less noise reduction than indicated by the NRR due to variation in earplug fit, the skill of the user in fitting earplugs and the motivation of the user. It is recommended that the NRR be reduced by 50 percent to better estimate typical workplace protection.
Respiratory protection – Respirator selection requires knowledge of the specific contaminant, the air concentration level and the occupational exposure limit such as the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) or the threshold limit value (TLV) published by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).
Respirators must be selected based upon contaminant type, exposure level, exposure limit, whether the contaminant is immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) and the assigned protection factor of the respirator. For example, air-purifying respirators only can be worn if the contaminant is known, concentrations are within the capabilities of the respirator, an appropriate cartridge or filter is available for the contaminants, a cartridge/canister change schedule has been developed and sufficient oxygen is present.
Note that in the United States, all occupational respirator use must comply with the requirements of the OSHA respiratory protection standard, 29CFR1910.134, which requires a written respiratory protection program when respirators are used. Specific requirements of the written program are found in the respiratory protection standard and include selection methods, use procedures, medical clearance, fit testing, training and recordkeeping.
Employers should select a respirator based on how much and what kind of air contaminants will be present and what kind of work is being done. There is not one kind of respirator that will work in all conditions, applications and exposure levels. For example, a particle filter will not protect a user from solvent vapor, so it should not be selected for this type of contaminant. If a user is not sure which respirator is correct, they should ask their supervisor or the respirator program administrator.
Integrating Multiple Types of PPE
Often, workers need to wear more than one type of PPE. A worker may need to wear a hard hat along with eye protection, for example, or a respirator and ear muffs. Simultaneous use of different PPE can be problematic because they may not be designed to work effectively and efficiently together. Nowhere is this challenge more common than with “above the shoulder” PPE.
When PPE is required for head, eye, hearing and respiratory protection, compatibility issues may arise because all equipment is competing for space on a worker’s head. Select individual PPE that is compatible or find PPE that incorporates all requirements at once.
Some individual PPE components can perform well alone but are not compatible when worn together. This could lead to inadequate protection because workers may not wear PPE if it is not compatible or comfortable together. It also could lead to lost productivity or lower worker morale if the user must constantly struggle to readjust or get their PPE to work properly together during their work activities.
The employer should have employees try on all types of PPE that will be used together before making a final selection of specific PPE models. The PPE manufacturer also may have recommendations regarding which models of PPE fit well together. The evolution in the design of all-in-one PPE systems is an alternative for some employers as well.
PPE Selection Considerations
Workers must be trained to use PPE correctly. Ensuring that workers are properly trained is the responsibility of the employer. Just as importantly, the training provider must be trained and knowledgeable. While PPE may appear to be a fairly simple item, proper use and understanding of its limitations can be complex. The trainer must have a complete knowledge of the specific PPE to be used: how it works, restrictions and warning indicators of improper use, as well as an understanding of the regulations regarding the PPE use. Reviewing the information in the manufacturer’s instructions and relevant regulations should be part of any training program.
Before selecting PPE, consider the entire package of safety equipment required for the job. All the PPE selected for use by the worker must be compatible and comfortable. If the PPE is not comfortable or has poor worker acceptance, it may not be used properly to provide the protection needed.
Scott Larson, CIH, CSP, is a technical service specialist for 3M Occupational Health & Environmental Safety Division. For the past 14 years, Larson has supported the development and use of 3M’s personal protective equipment, with primary focus on respiratory protection including disposable and reusable respiratory protection equipment. He holds a B.S. in industrial technology and a master’s of industrial safety from the University of Minnesota - Duluth.