The entire topic of personal protection must be considered in the context of control methods for preventing occupational injuries and diseases. This article presents a detailed technical discussion of the types of personal protection which are available, the hazards for which their use may be indicated and the criteria for selecting appropriate protective equipment. Where they are applicable, the approvals, certifications and standards which exist for protective devices and equipment are summarized. In using this information, it is essential to be constantly mindful that personal protection should be considered the method of last resort in reducing the risks found in the workplace. In the hierarchy of methods which may be used to control workplace hazards, personal protection is not the method of first choice. In fact, it is to be used only when the possible engineering controls which reduce the hazard (by methods such as isolation, enclosure, ventilation, substitution, or other process changes), and administrative controls (such as reducing work time at risk for exposure) have been implemented to the extent feasible. There are cases, however, where personal protection is necessary, whether as a short-term or a long-term control, to reduce occupational disease and injury risks. When such use is necessary, personal protective equipment and devices must be used as part of a comprehensive programme which includes full evaluation of the hazards, correct selection and fitting of the equipment, training and education for the people who use the equipment, maintenance and repair to keep the equipment in good working order and overall management and worker commitment to the success of the protection programme.
Elements of a Personal Protection Programme
The apparent simplicity of some personal protective equipment can result in a gross underestimation of the amount of effort and expense required to effectively use this equipment. While some devices are relatively simple, such as gloves and protective footwear, other equipment such as respirators can actually be very complex. The factors which make effective personal protection difficult to achieve are inherent in any method which relies upon modification of human behaviour to reduce risk, rather than on protection which is built into the process at the source of the hazard. Regardless of the particular type of protective equipment being considered, there is a set of elements which must be included in a personal protection programme.
If personal protection is to be an effective answer to a problem of occupational risk, the nature of the risk itself and its relationship to the overall work environment must be fully understood. While this may seem so obvious that it barely needs to be mentioned, the apparent simplicity of many protective devices can present a strong temptation to short cut this evaluation step. The consequences of providing protective devices and equipment which are not suitable to the hazards and the overall work environment range from reluctance or refusal to wear inappropriate equipment, to impaired job performance, to risk of worker injury and death. In order to achieve a proper match between the risk and the protective measure, it is necessary to know the composition and magnitude (concentration) of the hazards (including chemical, physical or biological agents), the length of time for which the device will be expected to perform at a known level of protection, and the nature of the physical activity which may be performed while the equipment is in use. This preliminary evaluation of the hazards is an essential diagnostic step which must be accomplished before moving on to selecting the appropriate protection.
The selection step is dictated in part by the information obtained in hazard evaluation, matched with the performance data for the protective measure being considered for use and the level of exposure which will remain after the personal protective measure is in place. In addition to these performance-based factors, there are guidelines and standards of practice in selecting equipment, particularly for respiratory protection. The selection criteria for respiratory protection have been formalized in publications such as Respirator Decision Logic from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States. The same sort of logic can be applied to selecting other types of protective equipment and devices, based upon the nature and magnitude of the hazard, the degree of protection provided by the device or equipment, and the quantity or concentration of the hazardous agent which will remain and be considered acceptable while the protective devices are in use. In selecting protective devices and equipment, it is important to recognize that they are not intended to reduce risks and exposures to zero. Manufacturers of devices such as respirators and hearing protectors supply data on the performance of their equipment, such as protection and attenuation factors. By combining three essential pieces of information—namely, the nature and magnitude of the hazard, the degree of protection provided, and the acceptable level of exposure and risk while the protection is in use—equipment and devices can be selected to adequately protect workers.
Any protective device must be properly fitted if it is to provide the degree of protection for which it was designed. In addition to the performance of a protective device, proper fit is also an important factor in the acceptance of the equipment and the motivation of people to actually use it. Protection which is ill-fitting or uncomfortable is unlikely to be used as intended. In the worst case, poorly fitted equipment such as clothing and gloves can actually create a hazard when working around machinery. Manufacturers of protective equipment and devices offer a range of sizes and designs of these products, and workers should be provided with protection which fits properly to accomplish its intended purpose.
In the case of respiratory protection, specific requirements for fitting are included in standards such as the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s respiratory protection standards. The principles of assuring proper fit apply over the full range of protective equipment and devices, regardless of whether they are required by a specific standard.
Training and education
Because the nature of protective devices requires modification of human behaviour to isolate the worker from the work environment (rather than to isolate the source of a hazard from the environment), personal protection programmes are unlikely to succeed unless they include comprehensive worker education and training. By comparison, a system (such as local exhaust ventilation) which controls exposure at the source may operate effectively without direct worker involvement. Personal protection, however, requires full participation and commitment by the people who use it and from the management which provides it.
Those responsible for the management and operation of a personal protection programme must be trained in the selection of the proper equipment, in assuring that it is correctly fitted to the people who use it, in the nature of the hazards the equipment is intended to protect against, and the consequences of poor performance or equipment failure. They must also know how to repair, maintain, and clean the equipment, as well as to recognize damage and wear which occurs during its use.
People who use protective equipment and devices must understand the need for the protection, the reasons it is being used in place of (or in addition to) other control methods, and the benefits they will derive from its use. The consequences of unprotected exposure should be clearly explained, as well as the ways users can recognize that the equipment is not functioning properly. Users must be trained in methods of inspecting, fitting, wearing, maintaining, and cleaning protective equipment, and they must also be aware of the limitations of the equipment, particularly in emergency situations.
Maintenance and repair
The costs of equipment maintenance and repair must be fully and realistically assessed in designing any personal protection programme. Protective devices are subject to gradual degradation in performance through normal use, as well as catastrophic failures in extreme conditions such as emergencies. In considering the costs and benefits of using personal protection as a means of hazard control it is very important to recognize that the costs of initiating a programme represent only a fraction of the total expense of operating the programme over time. Equipment maintenance, repair, and replacement must be considered as fixed costs of operating a programme, as they are essential to maintaining the effectiveness of protection. These programme considerations should include such basic decisions as whether single use (disposable) or reusable protective devices should be used, and in the case of reusable devices, the length of service which can be expected before replacement must be reasonably estimated. These decisions may be very clearly defined, as in cases where gloves or respirators are usable only once and are discarded, but in many cases a careful judgement must be made as to the efficacy of reusing protective suits or gloves which have been contaminated by previous use. The decision to discard an expensive protective device rather than risk worker exposure as a result of degraded protection, or contamination of the protective device itself must be made very carefully. Programmes of equipment maintenance and repair must be designed to include mechanisms for making decisions such as these.
Protective equipment and devices are essential parts of a hazard control strategy. They can be used effectively, provided their appropriate place in the hierarchy of controls is recognized. The use of protective equipment and devices must be supported by a personal protection programme, which assures that the protection actually performs as intended in conditions of use, and that the people who have to wear it can use it effectively in their work activities.