PPE — Function vs. Comfort

07 Jan.,2023


Hooded Protective Coverall

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. 

The Importance of Function

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.

Don’t Disregard Comfort

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:

  • It’s too hot
  • It’s itchy
  • It’s too big or too small
  • It doesn’t breathe
  • It takes too long to put on

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:

  • Administrative controls: Incorporating administrative controls like breaks and rotation schedules can help workers get away from hazardous settings. If, for instance, they need to wear heavy coveralls on the floor, it can help them cool down if things get too hot.
  • Education: It’s a lot more tempting to remove your PPE or wear it improperly when you don’t fully understand the risks involved. By enforcing education on PPE use and workplace hazards, you can help boost PPE compliance and show employees why it is important to use personal protection equipment.
  • Engineering controls: In many cases, you can engineer out the hazard and either remove the hazardous condition or place a barrier between the worker and the hazard. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers resources on hazards where engineering controls are effective, and what you can do to implement them.

PPE Best Practices and Encouraging Employee Use

To ensure the best use and the right degree of comfort for personal protective equipment, ensure that it:

  • Meets or exceeds safety standards: This factor is nonnegotiable. Your PPE must meet any applicable standards from OSHA and state organizations. These may vary depending on work tasks, and you can sometimes improve worker comfort by only reviewing PPE use and optimizing it to fit the appropriate standards.
  • Functions as intended to protect the life and well-being of the worker: PPE should be regularly inspected and evaluated to ensure it works as intended. This includes assessing the use behaviors of workers—make sure they’re wearing PPE correctly and that all requirements are being enforced.
  • Stands up under the conditions in which it will be used: Your PPE should match the needs of the application and allow employees to conduct their work effectively. In a rough industrial environment, workers may need more heavy-duty PPE to support their day-to-day tasks, while less demanding tasks often require light-duty PPE.
  • Evolves as safety rules, regulations, and best practices evolve: Safety requirements and education are changing every day. Your PPE strategy should do the same. Stay up to date on changing safety requirements and regulations and stay in-tune with modern best practices.
  • Is application-specific: Some PPE is only necessary during certain tasks. Using it throughout the day is both inefficient and a great way to increase worker discomfort. So when should an employee wear PPE? Carefully consider the application and make sure PPE is only used when the task at hand calls for 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.