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12th December, 2019

What Is PPE In Health And Safety?

PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment. It is equipment used by an individual to keep themselves safe. PPE usually protects an individual rather than a group. Examples of PPE include hard hats, safety footwear, hi-viz clothing, ear defenders, safety goggles, and gloves.

PPE examples:

  • Safety helmets
  • Hard hats
  • Bumper caps
  • Hairnets
  • Safety glasses
  • Safety goggles
  • Face shields
  • Face screens
  • Visors
  • Earplugs
  • Ear defenders
  • Gloves
  • Gauntlets
  • Sleeving
  • Aprons
  • Overalls
  • Chemical suits
  • Safety boots
  • Foundry boots
  • Chainsaw boots
  • Dust masks
  • Respirators (RPE)
  • Hi-viz clothing
  • Harnesses
  • Life jackets

As you can see, there are many different types of PPE. Some items of PPE protect your head, like a hard hat to protect your from projectiles, or a hairnet to stop your hair getting tangled in the equipment you're using. Some make you more visible, like high-visibility clothing worn on railway work, in factories and on construction sites.

PPE can protect you from health hazards e.g. a dust mask protecting you from inhaling harmful fibres, and safety hazards e.g. a hard hat protecting you from a brick falling on your head.

wearing ppe
Multiple items of PPE can be worn together

Different types of PPE serve different purposes and protect the wearer from different hazards. So you don't just have to pick one item of PPE, but can use several. As long as they are compatible with each other, and work well together. For example, on construction sites, hard hats, safety boots and hi-viz vests are often the minimum items of PPE required to enter the site. So the person can be seen and has some basic protection from general construction site hazards.

Types of PPE:

  • Head protection
  • Hearing protection
  • Respiratory protection (RPE)
  • Hand and skin protection
  • Eye protection
  • Foot protection
  • Fall protection
  • Protective clothing

Health and safety measures are an important part of any work activity. Employers have legal health and safety responsibilities when it comes to protecting people at work. And employees also have legal health and safety responsibilities for using the control measures provided.

PPE is one of the options available to consider when you are looking at putting in place safety measures for a task or activity. But, when you check the hierarchy of risk control, you'll notice that PPE is not the most effective control measure. In fact, it's the last resort when it comes to protecting people.

hierarchy of risk control infographic
The hierarchy of risk control

PPE should never be the first option because it only protects one user at a time. It also usually relies on user activation. The person needs to remember to wear PPE and wear it properly. And you need to rely on them not to take it off during the task or activity.

For example, a hard hat may protect you from cuts and cracked skull if a brick falls on your head. But it doesn't stop the impact. Does the hard hat really give you full protection? And what if it falls on the person next to you who just took their hard hat to scratch their head? Of course, there are other controls that can make this situation much safer. Toeboards and netting that can stop that brick being able to fall from the work happening overhead. Your hard hat should just be there as an extra precaution, not the only one.

PPE limitations:

  • It only protects the person wearing it and not others
  • It must be used properly to work properly
  • It needs to be worn all the time to provide protection
  • It must be replaced when it stops proving protection (damaged, contaminated or expired)

While some of the above points are true for other control measures, the maintenance and monitoring requirements with PPE can be much greater compared with one single collective control measure. For example, a ventilation system can protect 50 people and is one piece of equipment to test and inspect. 50 people each wearing respiratory protection is 50 items of equipment to monitor, check and inspect.

But, while PPE shouldn't be your first consideration, it can often form an important part of your safety management. If other controls fail, PPE is the last line of defence a user has. It's often quick and easy to implement. And users know they are wearing it, and you can see them wearing it, so it's easy to know when they are protected.

PPE benefits:

  • Can be used if other controls are not practical
  • Can be used in temporary work situations while other controls are implemented
  • Gives immediate protection
  • Might be the only practical control measure in emergency situations

PPE can be a simple and straightforward control measure. But PPE isn't one size fits all. Often, PPE can be adjusted or supplied in a different size to fit the wearer. Wearing the wrong fit can give the illusion of safety, without the benefits of actually being safe. For example, a dust mask or respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is only suitable if it forms a seal so that contaminated air cannot bypass the filter.

hard hat expiry
PPE may become damaged or expire

PPE considerations:

  • The equipment is suitable for the wearer
  • The equipment is suitable for the task
  • The user is trained in its correct use
  • When multiple items used, PPE is compatible with each other
  • PPE is maintained
  • PPE is replaced when damaged or expired
  • PPE is suitably stored
  • PPE use is supervised and enforced

When you are thinking about using PPE to control a hazard, you should first consider the other ways you can reduce the risk. For example, ear defenders could reduce the noise at the ear. But it doesn't eliminate the hazard, the work area is still noisy, and other people may be affected. An enclosure around the equipment generating the noise could reduce the noise at its source, creating a safer environment for everyone.

PPE is an important control measure, but it should be used to control risks that have already been reduced by other controls, or if no other controls are suitable. Some circumstances where PPE is needed include:

  • Maintenance work
  • During emergencies
  • Where alternative controls are not possible or practical
  • When a risk assessment shows that some risk remains after other controls implemented

Now you should know what PPE is, and when to use it to create a safer work environment. Here are 50 reasons you should wear and use PPE, and you can download the free PPE toolbox talk to raise awareness on site.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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