PPE: Know What You Have, What You Need, Where to Find It, and How to Use It

Oct. 25, 2002
For the safety equipment industry, as for the nation and world,

by Dan Shipp, president, International Safety Equipment Association

For the safety equipment industry, as for the nation and world, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent events had an immediate and lasting effect.

In the aftermath of the attacks, companies were straining to fill orders for emergency supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites. The threat of bioterrorism quickly became the reality of attacks through the mail, and thousands of workers and citizens were suddenly seeking protective equipment.

The public became aware of PPE. Newspapers carried pictures of the president and vice president of the United States wearing hardhats. Photos of respirators were on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Men and women in protective suits were seen on the news every day. Construction workers and firefighters became the new national heroes. Consumers flooded company information lines to ask whether they should buy gas masks.

The effects of Sept. 11 are still being felt and will be felt for some time to come. One thing is sure: They will affect this industry, and it is the safety equipment industry's responsibility to see that these effects have positive results.

Well before last year's terrorist attacks, what is now called "homeland security" was an important issue for ISEA and its members. ISEA is the association for products that will protect people responding to chemical or biological attack, or other incidents involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We took the lead role in lobbying for congressional funding for testing and certification of respirators for WMD use. We worked to secure appropriations to establish a National Personal Protective Technologies Laboratory, and for FIRE (Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement) Act funding to enable fire departments to purchase needed protective equipment. We made alliances with other organizations representing the fire and emergency services, as well as the defense establishment and its suppliers.

When the airplanes hit on Sept. 11, the nation learned quickly that we have to be prepared for a much broader range of threats than we had imagined. The rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon taught important lessons about the need for PPE. These lessons are still being evaluated and will be studied for a long time to come. But there are four points that agencies should consider up front as they develop their response plans:

Know what PPE you need. Agencies, municipalities, local governments and responder organizations need to anticipate what potential terrorist threats exist, and plan and purchase PPE accordingly. The events of 9/11 taught us that the unimaginable will occur and may not be what we expect. Unlike conventional approaches to workplace hazard recognition and remediation, in emergency threat scenarios responders don't have the luxury of backing off and systematically analyzing the hazard. They have to characterize the risk while responding. This requires a broad range of protective equipment, on hand for immediate use.

Acquiring PPE takes planning. Some PPE such as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are essentially custom-made and require time to manufacture to user needs. Other PPE may be readily available, but specific sizes and colors are requested, which may take additional time to manufacture to specifications.

Know what PPE you have. As federal and state funds are disbursed to buy PPE, recipients have to match their needs with the equipment they have on hand or plan to acquire. Having a variety of PPE that provides protection for a broad range of hazards is just the beginning. Agencies will have to ensure that it is properly stored and maintained. Maintaining equipment in a fully functioning mode requires considerable effort and vigilance. For example, equipment that has battery components, such as powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) or toxic gas detectors, require periodic inspection and parts replacement to remain operational.

Know where it is and who maintains control of its use. After the initial response, responders need to know where to get spare parts and replacements. They need to plug in to a distribution network that can ensure timely supply at an event site, and coordinate logistics on the ground so that a continuing supply of PPE is available.

One of the most overwhelming obstacles to distributing appropriate PPE to workers at the World Trade Center site was inventory control, or the lack of it. Warehouses all over New York and New Jersey were full of supplies, including protective equipment, yet there was mass confusion about what equipment was available, where it was housed, and how to get it to those who needed it. There must be a coordinated logistics system for incident response and recovery, and on-site safety management dedicated to protecting workers.

Know how to use it. Responders are trained to respond: to help victims, restore infrastructure, maintain order and pursue what law enforcers call "two-legged threats." They are focused on protecting the public, yet they need to be trained as well on how to protect themselves and how to use the PPE with which they are being equipped. Many will be first-time users. There is scant chance for on-the-job training. Previous familiarity will go a long way in equipping them to confidently use protective equipment, even if using PPE is not a regular function of the job in non-emergency times.

Training on the use, selection, maintenance and limitations of PPE is critical to a successful response effort. Training may be the critical element that has been most clearly absent from our present emergency response drills. For example, firefighters are familiar with SCBAs and other firefighting apparatus, but completely unfamiliar with air-purifying respiratory protection that was necessary as search and rescue operations became recovery and cleanup operations.

There is help available today for agencies facing the daunting tasks of preparing for homeland defense. Reorganization of federal government assistance into a Department of Homeland Security will take some time, but there are numerous links to information sources from NIOSH (www.cdc.gov/niosh/emres01.html), OSHA (www.osha.gov), FEMA (www.fema.gov), and the Justice Department's Office for Domestic Preparedness (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/odp/). Safety equipment manufacturers and their authorized distributors are always excellent sources of information on products, maintenance and training. The ISEA on-line Buyers Guide (www.safetyequipment.org) provides links to these companies.

Arlington, Va.-based ISEA represents some 80 manufacturers of safety and personal protective equipment. Established in 1933, ISEA supports its members in manufacturing and marketing the highest-quality products to protect the safety and health of individuals who may be exposed to hazardous and potentially harmful environments while working on the job or at home.

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