Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a universal part of almost every industrial or construction environment, but it’s rarely enjoyable to wear. Problems with PPE comfort can make it less likely that employees will wear it, eliminating the protective properties it offers. You can also find PPE that provides more comfort, potentially at the risk of safety. Determining what PPE to use requires carefully analyzing the balance of function and comfort, along with the influences of environmental factors and engineering controls.
So, how do function and comfort compare? How much weight should you place on one over the other? We’ll explore these factors and more to help you enact best practices for PPE safety.
First and foremost is function. If you ask an employee, “Why is PPE important?” they’ll say it’s to keep you safe. The primary goal of any type of PPE is to protect the worker. The PPE’s function can vary widely, protecting against everything from heat and hazardous materials to electricity and falls. Some PPE examples include hard hats, coveralls, fall restraint systems, goggles, and gloves. The massive variety of options makes it important to select the right kind of equipment for the job and ensure it is worn correctly.
Ensuring that PPE offers the necessary safety is essential from legal, ethical, and profitability standpoints. You want your workers to be there to clock in the next day, and those precautions are also guided — and required — by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). However you look at it and whatever your priority is, the end goal is function. There’s no point in having PPE if it doesn’t work, or isn’t used.
Issues come up when we consider factors that affect PPE’s functionality. Function is affected by everything from the quality of the PPE to its use environment and even things like appearance and feel. All of these factors can affect how well the PPE protects against specific threats and whether it will be worn appropriately. This is why we need to pay so much attention to the entire balance of factors.
Consider a hot day, for instance. Does the risk of heatstroke or sickness outweigh the need for heavy personal protective clothing? Probably not, but it does mean you may need other measures to ensure workers don’t impede the function of their PPE or induce heat stress. They may need to take breaks, stay hydrated, or undergo more training about why they must wear PPE.
Lack of comfort is one of the most disruptive aspects that can impact PPE use. Workers could have any number of objections to PPE, including:
Heat might make workers pull off their PPE before it’s safe to do so, while gloves that are too big could make it hard to do their job. In some instances, poor fit can create further risk, such as when wearing a particulate respirator.
It’s important to remember these objections aren’t just employees being picky, they’re real concerns that make it difficult for them to work safely and productively. Objections can also be a significant indicator of how likely employees are to wear their PPE. It’s still the employer’s responsibility to ensure regulations are followed. When workers don’t wear their PPE, they’re putting themselves at risk. They need to be able to wear their safety equipment correctly and consistently throughout the length of the job or shift.
Comfort can be affected by characteristics of the PPE, such as the fabric’s material or size, or environmental factors, like excessive heat. Trying to maximize comfort by lowering protective capabilities below safety requirements is never an option. Still, there are certain things you can do to increase comfort and enforce PPE use without affecting safety:
To ensure the best use and the right degree of comfort for personal protective equipment, ensure that it:
Using the appropriate PPE is key to safety on the work site. Employers have a complex job to do if they want to promote safe PPE practices. They have to balance many different factors, from ease of access and affordability to effectiveness and compliance.
Comfort is a significant aspect of getting workers to use their PPE, but comfort should never come at the cost of safety. After all, safety is the primary purpose of PPE. With the right balance of comfort and function, you can better create the optimal environment for your workers.
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