The Importance of Total Safety: Building the ABCs of PPE

Oct. 6, 2016
While protecting employees is paramount to occupational safety and health professionals, the layered look isn't "in" when it comes to personal protective equipment.

To protect workers, occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals must follow current regulations and safety standards, evaluate and address all job site hazards, consider the personal protective equipment for the entire crew, provide training and monitor and maintain their safety plans and programs. It's a daunting job with high stakes.

There is a lot to consider when equipping a workforce with all of the safety equipment needed for all of the tasks they perform on the job. Head-to-toe safety often is tackled one hazard at a time, which might not be the best way to approach PPE when considering total safety.

And, there is more at stake than worker safety. A well-designed safety program not only impacts safety, but also overall job satisfaction, employee loyalty, productivity and the company's bottom line. OSH professionals must develop an effective, total safety plan. To help you do that, here are the ABCs of total safety.

Building a Case Against Layering PPE Piece-by-Piece

When an OSH professional layers on personal protective equipment (PPE), they often create multiple layers of safety that don't complement each other. For example, a safety professional at a metal fabrication company overseeing a team of welders followed current standards and regulations to a "T." He did a hazard assessment, deployed the necessary PPE equipment to meet regulations and made sure his team was trained on how to use their equipment properly. All that was left was to monitor the effectiveness of the safety program he put in place and gather feedback from his team. In doing so, he discovered a few issues with the equipment.

Workers frequently needed to change between grinding shields and welding helmets to effectively do their jobs. The individual equipment was not always appropriate for all the tasks they had to perform on a given day, forcing them to spend extra time changing into additional gear between tasks. The respirators they wore competed with the safety eyewear for prime facial real estate, contributing to poor eyewear fit and fogging. Additionally, if workers had any facial hair where the respirator sealed to the face, the effectiveness of the equipment was diminished.

While every piece of equipment workers wore met safety standards, they didn't work in tandem with each other, or the tasks workers had to perform – resulting in decreased worker satisfaction and productivity. To find a solution, the OSH professional reached out to 3M's PPE Safety Solutions team, which deployed the ABC's of Total Safety.

Assessment: Evaluate all of your PPE needs

A recommended first step to assessing a safety program is to enlist the help of a third-party resource or outside consultant. To help solve the issues identified, the OSH professional enlisted the help of a welding specialist on 3M's PPE Safety Solutions team to determine the best way to alleviate these issues and more importantly, maximize productivity while protecting workers.

The first thing the welding specialist did was assess the hazards on the job site. He discovered the following:

  • Workers exposed to welding fumes and arc radiation generated from the welding process they were using.
  • Workers' eyes and faces needed to be protected from particles released while grinding and using a wire brush.
  • Significant noise was generated from welding, grinding, arc gouging and other processes.
  • Respiratory system and workers' skin were exposed to potential hazards from urethane foams and isocyanates present during the painting and foaming process.
  • Temperatures were elevated from the welding, arc gouging and foaming operations.

Each of these issues came with its own set of regulations and standards and ways to eliminate or manage the hazard. The OSH professional on site had succeeded in safeguarding workers against these hazards, but knew there was room for improvement.

The biggest issue he identified was compatibility. The safety glasses used did not pair well with the welding helmet or grinding shields used, causing them to fog up in the hot and humid environment. Additionally, when workers switched from welding to grinding tasks, they frequently had to change into different PPE equipment, often disrupting particles and other foreign materials in and around their hair and head, creating the potential for foreign body eye injuries.

They needed equipment that worked well together and could be applied to all tasks.

Build a PPE System from Head to Toe

To ensure optimal safety, comfort and fit, each piece of PPE needed should be considered simultaneously. In this particular case, workers were using traditional hardhats with a hardhat-mounted flip-up or passive welding helmets and grinding shields with safety glasses. These were paired with either disposable or reusable respiratory protection. The welding specialist began by launching a trial of products that integrated PPE into one system. Workers evaluated two powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) systems that offered a respiratory system with an integrated hard hat, welding and face shield and optional hearing protection.

These PAPR systems were paired with compatible welding shields and safety glasses. In areas that needed additional cooling, supplied air cooling was introduced to provide adjustable cooling of up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit to the hood.

With this new, single system, workers could work comfortably for longer periods of time because they could get into tight spaces with less equipment – eliminating the need to spend time changing equipment – and could raise their welding shields in certain locations without risking exposure. Additionally, by tucking the inner bib of the supplied air hood into the coveralls, the workers were able to benefit from the cooling effect throughout their entire coverall suit.

Coach or Train Workers

After identifying the new equipment, the welding specialist provided training for all workers and management so workers knew how to use the equipment properly, understood how to utilize it most effectively and to confirm it worked for each of their specific tasks. Workers reported being more comfortable due to fresh air moving through the headgear, reduced downtime spent donning and doffing equipment and a reduction in time needed to complete some tasks.

By evaluating the ABC's of total safety, not only were government and company safety requirements met, but worker comfort, satisfaction and productivity were increased.

As one welder said, "They couldn't pay me to go back to the old way." This is the impact that considering the ABCs of total safety can have. When all the PPE equipment a worker has to wear functions as an integrated system, it helps the worker to be safe, productive and comfortable, and everyone wins.

Raymond Mann is global technical services & regulatory/application engineer, 3M Personal Safety Division; Derek Baker is senior technical product specialist, 3M Personal Safety Division; and Paul Maturen is marketing manager, 3M Personal Safety Division.

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