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December 18, 2013
Who was that masked worker—and why wasn't her nose covered? Workers' common PPE mistakes

Sometimes, engineering controls only get you so far.

You can guard the pinch points and the prime movers; you can replace some hazardous chemicals with less hazardous ones. When that’s not enough, you can sometimes control a hazard through scheduling—moving dangerous jobs to times when fewer workers are around or allowing only well-trained workers to have access to a hazardous area.

But there comes a point when you can no longer reduce exposure to a hazard through engineering or administrative controls. At that point, you need to look at personal protective equipment (PPE).

One reason PPE is not considered until other options are exhausted is that user error tends to be higher for PPE than for other categories of hazard controls. An effective safety program that uses PPE will require careful training and enforcement to ensure that workers are not committing the sorts of errors described below.

Common PPE mistakes

PPE mistakes that workers frequently make and that undermine the effectiveness of their PPE include:

Using PPE incorrectly. A dental hygienist who wears a mask to protect herself from airborne infectious diseases, but who doesn’t like that it obstructs her breathing, may pull the mask down to uncover her nose. Diseases that spread through the air are infectious in contact with the mucous membranes and the respiratory tract, both of which are easily accessible if she inhales infectious material through her unprotected nose.

By using her PPE incorrectly, this worker exposes herself to a hazard—perhaps because she did not understand what the mask is designed to do and how it is supposed to do it.

Make sure workers know: What their PPE is designed to do and how it protects them.

Using the wrong PPE. Wearing the wrong PPE can be especially hazardous because workers may believe they are protected from hazards when in fact they are exposed. A worker who wears safety glasses and nitrile gloves while pouring a methylene chloride paint stripper might think he or she is well protected, but splashing chemicals can find ways around a pair of safety glasses, and nitrile gloves are a poor choice against methylene chloride.

Reinforce your PPE training with frequent workplace walk-throughs, and correct any mistakes you see.

The worker shoes poorly for a hazardous liquid—what’s needed is a pair of safety goggles, not glasses. The worker also chose poorly for the particular chemical; polyvinyl alcohol is a much better choice for protection against chlorinated solvents.

Make sure workers know: Which PPE they need for the specific hazard they’re dealing with, especially if multiple options are available.

Sabotaging their PPE. Workers may carelessly sabotage their own PPE because they think doing so helps them better accomplish some job-related task, believe some personal preference is worth the risk, or don’t know any better.

A phlebotomist who puts on protective gloves, and then tears off two fingertips so she can palpate a vein, has sabotaged her PPE because she thinks it gets in the way of her job. A painter who wears a respirator while he’s spraying paint, but refuses to shave his beard, may not believe the beard affects the respirator’s function or perhaps doesn’t care. The electrical worker who puts conductive stickers on his hard hat might not realize that metallic stickers are conductive—or may be unaware that they can affect his PPE’s performance.

Make sure workers know: Exactly how they would put their safety and health at risk if they undermine the effectiveness of their equipment.

Removing PPE carelessly. PPE that is intended to protect against hazardous contaminants—whether chemical, biological, or radiological—is designed to act as a barrier between the worker and the harmful agent. Workers who are careless about removing PPE can be exposed to contaminants during the doffing process.

A worker who removes one contaminated glove, and then removes the other contaminated glove bare-handed, is exposed. A worker who removes PPE in an area that is supposed to be kept clean can spread contamination where no one expects to find it.

Make sure workers know: How and where to remove, clean, store, and dispose of PPE without creating an exposure hazard.

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