Personal protective equipment, often abbreviated as PPE, is an important part of the workplace as it aims to protect workers from serious injury or illness. PPE use has surged because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, corporations should always encourage PPE usage to protect workers from all types of occupational hazards.
Hospitals and healthcare facilities, along with industrial plants, constantly use personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of their workers. Other workplaces, including educational, industrial and corporate sectors, should also offer their employees PPE. Facility managers should supply protective equipment for their staff to encourage a safe workplace.
Workers should wear PPE despite any inconveniences it may cause because workplace accidents happen, and safety and compliance team members should not overlook this possibility.
What Is PPE?
In general, the overarching purpose of personal protective equipment (PPE) is to minimize exposure to occupational hazards and risks that could cause injury or illness by putting a barrier between the harmful agent and the wearer. Some components of PPE are gloves, gowns, goggles, eye protection and face shields.
Although PPE is always an important aspect of the workplace, the necessity of personal protective equipment and the compliance with properly using or wearing it surged during the pandemic. Specifically, studies gauge that the PPE market in the United States will grow an average of 12.5% annually from 2020 through 2024.
This increase in concern for personal protection will most likely continue even in the decline of the spread of coronavirus, making PPE and workers’ health an important topic to understand and practice.
What Are the Four Main Types of PPE?
There are many components to personal protective equipment, each product with a different purpose and level of effectiveness. To simplify the various functions of PPE, we can divide it into four different categories of protection: respiratory, hand, body, and eye and face.
Respiratory protective equipment (RPE), functions to protect individuals from inhaling dangerous substances and works in two major ways. The first is an air-purifying respirator, such as a mask, that filters out contaminants from the air. Other respirators use compressed air to supply oxygen to users, such as airline respirators.
RPE is important for employees who work closely with others, especially when they may interact with people who are ill. Specifically, studies show that airborne bacteria from things like coughs and sneezes can send around 100,000 germs into the air at around 100 miles per hour.
While RPE protects from germs and bacteria, it also protects from workplace factors, such as harmful vapors, gases, dust and fumes. Because of all the everyday workplace respiratory hazards, RPE is an important part of personal protective equipment.
Hand protection covers the hands and arms to potential injury. Most commonly gloves, hand protection defends against cuts, splinters, punctures and fractures. Gloves not only shield wearers from abrasions and burns, but it also prevents workers from absorbing harmful chemicals into their bodies or coming into contact with bacteria via touch.
Hand protection comes in various types and materials, each designed with a specific purpose. For example, influencing factors for the best type of glove in certain workplaces include the nature of contact, the chemicals or materials used, thermal protection and grip requirements.
Eye and Face Protection
The fourth main type of PPE is eye and face protection, such as safety glasses, protective goggles and face shields. The goal of face protection equipment is to lessen the chance of facial injuries and eyesight problems.
Eye protection is extremely important as it protects from radiation, harsh lighting, chemical splashes, flying debris and extreme temperatures. Workplace data shows that there are annually 800,000 job site eye injuries, 90 percent of which could have been prevented.
Other Types of PPE
In addition to the four major types of PPE, there are a lot of other protective measures for workers to take to minimize injury and illness.
One common aspect of protective equipment is foot protection. Foot protection ranges from apparel as simple as non-slip shoes and steel-toed boots to shoe covers and heat resistant leg wear. This PPE can prevent injury by guarding the foot from rolling, crushing or falling hazards and from slipping and chemical spills.
Another important PPE component is head protection. Specifically, especially in the industrial sector, hard hats and bump caps protect against falling or swinging objects and hard surfaces, and caps and hair nets protect from hair pulling and entanglement.
Hearing protection is also a key part of personal protective equipment to reduce the hazard of noise exposure. Statistics report that about 25% of workers have been exposed to hazardous noise, and 34% of noise-exposed workers do not properly wear hearing protection.
Falling hazards are another concern that workplaces can help protect against with PPE. Fall protection, like harnesses and suspension systems, can help eliminate falling and injuries sustained from falling.
Depending on the season and the nature of the job, insulated or thermal clothing may be an important part of a company’s PPE. This apparel protects wearers from extreme chills and cold temperatures.
Similar to the functionality of insulated clothing, high-visibility clothing can be important in industries like construction, where workers are outside or on the road next to dangerous machinery and traffic.
The healthcare industry presents a lot of hazards for its workers, thus the importance of personal protective equipment. Within healthcare professions, because of the hazards and their seriousness, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set metrics to attempt to reduce healthcare associated infections, such as bloodstream infections and surgical site infections.
Why PPE is Important for Healthcare
When healthcare workers properly use PPE, this helps in slowing the spread of infections and diseases. This is true for both PPE worn by healthcare professionals and practices within healthcare settings.
Common PPE worn by all medical personnel includes gloves, masks, protective clothing, shoe covers and goggles. Cytotoxic PPE is another type of PPE worn specifically by healthcare professionals handling certain cancer drugs. Choosing the right PPE for a person based on their jobs and who they care for is key to protecting both workers and patients.
Within healthcare facilities, proper sanitation of surfaces, specifically surgical and lab and screening equipment, can help with sterilization, preventing the spread or killing bacteria entirely. They also need to practice proper sanitation or disposal of PPE. This means having systems in place where all workers follow guidelines, such as having special laundry containers, waste containers and marked bags each for each piece of PPE that they can reuse or that needs disposal.
To ensure proper use of personal protective equipment, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) instate guidelines for all topics relating to workplace safety, including hazards and exposures, diseases and injuries and emergency preparedness and response. The goal of these guidelines is to create the safest environment possible for healthcare workers and patients alike.
Why PPE is Critical For Construction
Personal protective equipment is also important in the construction industry. While the healthcare industry focuses on disease and infection prevention, the construction industry relies on PPE more for the safety of its workers.
The OSHA acknowledges that construction is a high hazard industry and sets construction-specific guidelines. They present goals and advice for both employers and workers to achieve safety on the job through the use of PPE. Their many guidelines identify hazards like silica and asbestos, working with tools and being around falling objects and other debris.
Exposure to particles from silica and asbestos can cause serious diseases, such as lung disease and cancer, and OSHA recommends respiratory protective equipment specifically designed for these dust particles to limit a worker’s exposure. The OSHA also outlines safety training for workers using manufacturing and construction tools like cranes and derricks.
Employers should encourage and workers should recognize the importance of PPE in the construction industry. While PPE may seem restrictive and inconvenient, it protects workers from bodily harm. Common construction PPE includes head protection, foot protection, hearing and sight protection, body protection and respiratory protection.
As the construction industry has many hazards, companies need to promote not just the use of PPE but the proper use of it. For example, if a helmet or a pair of goggles has a crack in it, workers should replace them. Things like this may seem obvious, but support from employers to use equipment appropriately can prevent accident or injury.
Why PPE Matters for the Food Industry
Another industry that heavily relies on PPE for the protection of its workers and customers is the food industry. Personal protective equipment is necessary in this industry to minimize the spread of bacteria between workers and consumers, to prevent food contamination and for the personal safety of workers. While there are many aspects to the food industry, PPE is important in each step, meaning that protective equipment in the food service industry is just as important as PPE in food production.
In the food industry, one of the main concerns is contact and consumption of contaminated products. PPE, such as gloves, masks and hair nets, are key because they prevent food contamination from bodily factors. Another important factor when considering illness from food is through cross-contamination. Cross-contamination occurs when raw food with harmful bacteria touches people, surfaces, equipment and other food and can cause food poisoning. However, if workers use PPE, this and the proper sanitation and cleanliness can these prevent hazards.
Protective clothing is also important because it shields the workers from severe cuts and burns in the workplace. In fact, injury among restaurant workers is up to 60% higher than in non-food industries. To reduce the number of workplace industries, food workers need PPE that includes heat resistant clothing, cut resistant gloves, liquid resistant apparel and non-slip shoes.
Other Industries Where PPE is Useful
Every industry has its own set of hazards, making personal protective equipment important in every job sector. Hazards, including those that affect the health of employees and those that affect users, customers or consumers are a key consideration in every industry.
Some workplaces where workers should use PPE are beauty salons and tattoo parlors. Both of these industries require person-to-person contact, which amplifies the risk of spreading illness and infection. Also, both professions require hazardous materials such as chemicals, dyes and inks and scissors and needles. Workers in these fields need to have PPE that includes gloves, eye protection and sanitizers. Specifically, people getting tattoos often experience bleeding, which allows for the spread of serious infection and disease if workers do not practice proper sanitization.
Just like how PPE is important in jobs that require person-to-person contact, personal protective equipment is also necessary in person-to-animal contact. Dangers of working with animals include physical, chemical and biological hazards. Depending on the risks of the specific job of working with animals, there are different levels of protection to match the different hazards. General PPE practices for people working with animals can include lab coats, ear plugs, face shields and shoe covers.
Additionally, dentistry facilities offer a lot of the same potential hazards as in the healthcare industry. Implementing PPE practices in dentistry can help prevent disease transmission from dentist to patient and patient to patient. Proper PPE can limit the transfer of blood and bacteria from saliva. When the dentist uses equipment that meets the OSHA standards, they reduce the risk of blood-borne pathogens and infectious materials from getting onto the dentist’s clothes. Then, if they sanitize or dispose of their PPE appropriately, they lessen the risk of transfer. Adequate sanitization of tools and equipment also prevents this spread between patients.
When is PPE Necessary to Wear?
The main goal of PPE is to keep everyone safe in their workplaces by reducing the risk of injury and illness. The first step in deciding the proper PPE of an industry is to conduct a hazard risk assessment. After assessing the hazards, if the workplace can remove these risks, then they should do so. Otherwise, once administrative controls determine they cannot remove or replace the hazard, that is when they can define the proper protective equipment.
Once determining the hazards, those in charge should state any required PPE and offer instruction on how to use the equipment. Ignoring PPE guidelines can be detrimental to one’s health or well-being, so emphasizing the necessity to wear PPE in any hazardous situation, including extreme temperatures, chemical use, falling hazards and the spreading of bacteria and germs, is key to keeping workers safe.
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