The need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) has understandably been the subject of a huge amount of debate and media coverage over the past year or so, but how much do we really understand about this issue in the wider workplace context?
PPE is a term used to broadly describe a whole array of wearable clothing and devices aimed at offering a level of protection to all parts of the human anatomy from an almost endless list of hazards. Consequently, a whole industry has evolved to manufacture and supply items of PPE from hard hats used to limit injury from impacts to the head, to wellington boots for those who work in wet or muddy environments, who would otherwise be at risk from skin disorders and the damaging effects of cold on their extremities.
Health and safety practitioners have long advocated that the use of PPE should always be considered as the ‘last line of defence’ against workplace hazards, and where it is used, it should be supplementary to other more robust control strategies. This standpoint is taken for a number of reasons:
Employers have often viewed PPE as a first option for protection of employees because it can be quick and convenient to deploy and can be considered an inexpensive control measure in comparison to addressing the hazard source.
When risk assessing the activities of employees (and others in the workplace such as visitors and contractors) it is expected that the employer will consider and apply the Principles of Prevention in order to bring hazards and their associated risks under a reasonably practicable level of control. In practice this means employers need to conduct a ‘risk versus cost’ benefit analysis that justifies the time, effort and cost that can be afforded to implement the various control options when weighed against the level of risk presented. Unfortunately this is not always a straightforward calculation to make, however, the law does not require a disproportionate level of response to a risk and provides guidance to try to clarify the standards that should be adopted.
If a risk assessment identifies that the use of PPE will be required, then a further more specific assessment will have to be made to consider and determine the following:
It then becomes imperative that employers select the correct specification of PPE to withstand the threat presented.
Different standards exist in each category of PPE e.g. High visibility clothing for working on live carriageways usually exceeds the standards required for working on a conventional construction site. Therefore, you may need to seek competent advice from PPE suppliers and manufacturers to ensure the capabilities of the equipment are sufficient and that any limitations are understood. It is a requirement under The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 that employers also take account of issues of compatibility when selecting PPE and ensure one item of PPE does not adversely affect the performance of another when worn simultaneously.
All PPE should carry a CE or UKCA marking to show it has met minimum standards of conformance. The UKCA marking came into effect on 1 January 2021 within the United Kingdom, however, to allow businesses time to adjust to the new requirements, the CE marking will still be in use until 1 January 2022 in most cases.
Once the right standard of PPE has been selected then employers need to consider and manage the following:
There is clearly a lot to contemplate before choosing PPE as a control method and if we fail to do so, we cannot expect PPE to provide robust and reliable protection for our people.
The HSE website provides a range of useful and easy to access resources, or alternatively, contact your RMP Risk Control Consultant for advice and support.