If the PPE Fits, Workers Will Wear It
By Dave Matela, senior category manager, Kimberly-Clark Professional U.S.
When it comes to protecting employees in the industrial workplace, compliance with personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols is one of the most crucial elements of any safety program. Yet there continues to be an unacceptably high rate of noncompliance in the workplace.
Consider the results of a survey undertaken by Kimberly-Clark Professional at the 2008 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress: 89 percent of safety professionals said they had observed workers failing to wear PPE when they should have been. This marked the third consecutive year that the survey revealed a high rate of PPE noncompliance – with 87 percent answering yes to this question in 2007 and 85 percent in 2006.
So it is not surprising that one third of respondents said worker compliance with safety protocols was the top workplace safety issue in their facilities, especially when one considers that disabling work-related injuries in the U.S. cost more than $50 billion a year or about $1 billion a week -- statistics that should give anyone pause.
One key factor that can lead to noncompliance is uncomfortable PPE. In the 2007 NSC survey, discomfort was found to be the chief cause of noncompliance with PPE protocols. Next was: workers thinking PPE was not necessary for the task. This was followed by:
- Too hot
- Poor fit
Yet the issue of comfort or “wearability” is often not adequately addressed when selecting PPE, resulting in compliance issues with safe operating procedures. These wearability issues extend to all types of PPE – from head-to-toe. For example, if coveralls don’t provide adequate breathability, if safety glasses fog up during use, if protective gloves don’t allow for hand dexterity, or if respiratory straps are tight and painful to wear, there is a chance that users will avoid wearing the PPE, or that they will modify the PPE in some way, thus compromising its protective features.
Wearability also extends to garment fit and compatibility issues. Fit issues relate to apparel sizing and body geometry. For example, a garment’s sleeves must not ride up to expose skin when the wearer reaches forward. From a compatibility standpoint, both specifiers and users need to have a clear understanding of whether gloves should be taped to the outside of the coverall sleeve (if, for example, the use scenario calls for bending over and immersing one’s hands in a dangerous liquid) or to the inside of the coverall sleeve (if, for example, the use scenario calls for heavy chemical splash exposure, to prevent the splash from dripping down into the cuff of the glove).
Several other fit and style issues should also play a role in the selection process for protective apparel and other PPE, as they too can help improve compliance.
For instance, when PPE is “connected to” the wearer, compliance becomes more automatic. Integrating ear plugs with safety glasses via a lanyard, for example, makes complying with hearing protection protocols much easier, because the PPE is in easy reach and not left in a bin at the building entrance.
Appearance MattersWhen it comes to style, PPE that allows workers to express their individuality leads to greater compliance. Providing a range of options in terms of color and other style aspects gives workers some control over how they look. When people are content with their appearance in PPE, it follows that they will be more likely to wear it without modification. Moreover, PPE that is perceived as “cool” is more likely to be worn, especially by the emerging Gen-Y workforce. That is why many PPE manufacturers are looking toward the consumer fashion and sports apparel industries for cues on the latest styles, which can be adapted for the PPE market.
For garments to be comfortable they also need to be designed to fit the needs of a diverse workforce. Sizing and cut are extremely important, because for a comfortable fit a garment can’t be too big or too small. If it is too small, the wearer may be exposed to hazards, due to rip-outs, or users may modify the garment to be more comfortable. Garments should offer a generous cut that exceeds ANSI minimum sizing standards, especially across the shoulders and key stress areas like the torso and crotch. A slightly fuller cut will help to enhance the comfort of the garment and will help reduce pulls, tears and rip-outs. It’s also important to select garments that offer a greater range of sizing options to fit both women and men, as well as a wide range of body types.
One apparel design feature that helps to improve fit and makes for a more comfortable and wearable garment is an elastic waist. Stretch panels under the arms and across the back also offer better fit, increased range of motion and built-in freedom of movement that enable coveralls to move and stretch with the wearer.
Comfort Extends Beyond ApparelComfort and fit are as important for other types of PPE – such as eye protection, gloves and respirators – as they are for apparel. With eye protection, it’s essential to select products that offer comfort features such as cushioned brows, comfortable gel nosepieces or vented frames, to name a few. Comfort also extends to attributes that prevent fogging when worn with an industrial respirator. Selecting protective eyewear with style features found in fashion eyewear, such as wraparound designs and mirrored lenses, can also help to encourage compliance. Always make sure, however, that eye protection products offer crucial safety features, such as impact-resistance and distortion-free lenses, as well as sufficient protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays.
Glove compliance can also be influenced by comfort and fit. If a glove is more comfortable to wear, users are more likely to comply with PPE protocols. Fortunately, with the advanced glove materials available today, the development of new glove technologies goes beyond function to also consider fit and comfort. Style is becoming increasingly important in contributing to improved compliance. In light of this, some manufacturers are taking a more distinctive approach with signature colors such as purple, blue, grey and orange.
Respirators are necessary to protect workers against lung impairment and occupational diseases caused by insufficient oxygen environments, harmful dusts, fogs, smokes, mists, gases, vapors, and sprays. Common sense tells us that uncomfortable respirators are less likely to be worn correctly. So it’s important to apply these same comfort standards to respirators, by looking for features that encourage all-day wear. These include: soft foam nose pads, full perimeter foam and adjustable head straps, and ultrasonically bonded head straps that help keep respirators securely in place without pulling or breaking. Color-coded straps that indicate the level of protection can also aid compliance by enabling safety managers to determine from a distance if employees are using the correct respirators for a given task. Furthermore, where it is required to wear a respirator and respirators are issued to employees, a Fit Test is required by OSHA to ensure proper respirator selection and fit for each individual.
In conclusion, PPE will only protect workers if it is worn properly and consistently. Comfort, fit and even style can help drive compliance. This approach reflects the OSHA guidelines for selecting PPE, which state: “employers should take the fit and comfort of PPE into consideration when selecting appropriate items for their workplace. PPE that fits well and is comfortable to wear will encourage employee use of PPE.”