Safety directors and supervisors know that personal protective equipment (PPE) works. Most employees say they believe PPE works, too. So why do safety directors and managers see workers not wearing PPE when they should be?
OSHA statistics show how often employees aren’t using their PPE. In 2018, three of the top 10 OSHA violations were for lack of protective gear:
- The most cited violation: Fall Protection, General Requirements
- The 4th most cited violation: Respiratory Protection, and
- The 10th most cited violation: Eye and Face Protection.
Here’s a recent case:
OSHA cited a company after an electrician was injured while working on an electrical panel. He powered down the side of box he was going to work on, but then disconnected the ground wire.
The ground wire shifted into the other side of the box and touched a live wire. It caused an arc flash and badly burned the electrician.
The electrician wasn’t wearing his PPE. He had it on but took off his hood and gloves because it was easier to work without them.
The company appealed the OSHA fine, arguing unpreventable employee misconduct.
The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld the OSHA fine.
“Getting tough” on PPE or increasing safety training isn’t a cure-all. Companies get better results when using multiple strategies that work.
Here are 16 proven ideas from the editors of Safety News Alert:
1. Keep extra PPE on hand
Some facilities store extra PPE (gloves, goggles, face shields, hard hats) on site for when workers “forget” or misplace their gear.
For example: Camden Iron & Metal, Inc., in Camden, NJ, stores dozens of variously sized PPE in plastic drums in its main office. Workers check in at the office in the morning and pick up their paychecks there.
So the drums are visible and accessible for anyone who needs an extra set of gear.
2. Let them take it home
Studies show that people who wear PPE at home for cutting grass, woodwork, and other weekend projects, are more likely to wear PPE at work. Practicing safety at home leads to good habits at work.
Consider ordering “extra” PPE, like eyewear, gloves, hard hats, etc., that workers can take home with them.
Bonus: PPE helps reduce the risk of home accidents, reducing missed days from work, potential bogus workers’ comp claims and medical insurance claims (if an employee is covered through his or her company).
3. Training idea: Eye protection
Goggles provide better eye protection than safety glasses, particularly against sparks or flying objects that can strike the eye from the side.
But workers typically prefer glasses because they’re more comfortable.
One way to show them that goggles are the better choice: Bring some onions and knives to your next safety meeting.
Have some workers cut onions while wearing glasses, and have other do it wearing goggles.
The workers wearing glasses will be “crying” for the extra protection that goggles provide!
4. Routinely check for wear and tear
Have supervisors and/or line employees routinely check the condition of PPE. Problems may include:
- holes and tears in gloves
- frays or no elasticity on eyewear straps, and
- missing or damaged fall protection (body vests, lanyards, etc.).
Make sure checkers note damaged PPE and have supervisors throw the stuff out.
5. Occasional reminders pay off
OSHA’s hearing protection standard is clear: Employers must have a hearing conservation program in place if workers are exposed to a time-weighted average (TWA) noise level of 85 decibels (dBA) or higher over an 8-hour work shift.
That doesn’t mean workers always wear it!
Your supervisors should do spot checks around loud machinery or tools to ensure people are wearing their earmuffs or earplugs. Occasional reminders can help do the trick.
For repeat violators, follow standard disciplinary procedures (oral warning, written warning, suspension, and so on).
6. ‘Idiot-proof’ earplugs
Ear plugs are easy to lose. Workers may drop one or both and be unable to find them.
To save time (and their hearing), consider ordering earplugs connected with string. That way workers can take one earplug out for a brief conversation and put it back in easily because it’s hanging from the connecting string.
7. Make it easy and convenient to clean
Just any kind of cleaning materials won’t do for safety glasses, goggles or face shields. Some rough cloth or paper towels will scratch lenses, especially prescriptive eyewear.
Keep plenty of mild soaps or soap/mild detergent mixes on hand for cleaning eyewear. Also: Provide soft wipes or shammy towels for drying eyewear after it’s been washed.
8. Spell out what’s required
OSHA doesn’t require that companies post signage spelling out what PPE must be worn in machine shops, on the production floor, etc.
Even so, posting signs is a good idea.
List the required PPE on walls or on doors leading to work areas. They serve as an extra helpful reminder in addition to regular safety training and toolbox talks.
Plus: Visitors to any worksite may need the extra reminder, too.
9. Pictures worth a thousand words
PPE reminder signage with just words works. Even better: visual reminders, such as pictograms.
Signs may show a worker silhouette image in black-and-white with colored gloves, hard hats, eyewear, coverall and boots.
Pictograms stand out in any building with standard written warnings and boards.
Also: Non-English-speaking workers can clearly understand pictograms, just as English-speaking employees do.
10. Stress-busters that promote safety
Even when safety compliance among workers is very good or excellent, there’s always the chance for a backslide.
One common reason: workplace stress. When people are stressed, it’s more likely injuries can happen.
The Big 3 causes of workplace stress:
- growing workloads
- change, and
- lack of control.
Any combination of these factors can lead to safety slip-ups, like skipping PPE use. Stress-reducing programs and exercise groups can help.
11. Use spot coolers
Installing central air conditioning in many plant floors and machine shops isn’t feasible or affordable. But consider that workers don’t wear or frequently remove life-saving PPE when they’re hot and stuffy.
One solution: spot coolers or mobile air-conditioning units.
Spot coolers positioned near heat-generating equipment or group work areas increase workers’ comfort, making them more likely to keep PPE on.
Also: Workers can take short breaks near a spot cooler and reduce their body temperature before donning PPE and going back to work.
12. Put in more fans
Better ventilation helps reduce high temperatures in non-cooled work areas by a few degrees.
Many facilities install multiple ceiling fans to ventilate plant floors.
Another option: Multiple box fans and oscillating floor fans.
Facility managers or contractors can come up with solutions to make workers more comfortable and more apt to wear PPE.
13. Bring in PPE vendors
All the latest and greatest PPE looks perfect in a brochure or on a Web site. But PPE isn’t about looks – how it feels, fits and conforms to a worker’s body is the key for compliance.
More and more companies invite multiple PPE vendors to demonstrate their best and newest products on site.
Vendors can explain why certain PPE provides excellent protection, describe the materials it’s made with, and demonstrate how workers should don and doff the gear.
Safety directors and supervisors can ask questions about the products and show vendors the hazardous jobs workers do.
14. Let workers choose their PPE
Giving workers personal choice about their PPE will increase their personal commitment to safety.
Maintenance facilities supervisor Lewis Franklin, from Kearfott Guidance and Navigation in Black Mountain, SC, learned that lesson firsthand:
“Some workers were getting lax on safety, namely PPE.
“Luckily we hadn’t had any major accidents. But workers weren’t taking enough of a personal interest in their safety.
“They’d wear the ‘easy’ stuff, but anything that was uncomfortable or ‘a pain’ to use, would somehow ‘slip their minds.’
“That kind of casual compliance made us nervous.
“We needed a way to get our guys to take PPE seriously. “So we went to the experts in the field – the PPE vendors.
“We brought a few vendors in to demonstrate new products and models. The big key: They met with the whole workforce, not just managers.
“Our workers asked questions and discussed options with the vendors.
And we gave them a say in what PPE would best fit their jobs.
“The costs for new PPE weren’t much more expensive than what we were paying for the gear they didn’t always wear!
“The vendors were happy. They got more business and a chance to make a free sales pitch.
“More importantly, our people are paying more attention to PPE. They know the ins and outs of the equipment they’re using, and they see why it’s so important to wear it.
“Plus we can say: ‘Look. This is what you wanted to wear and chose to wear. Now we expect you to wear it.”
Result: Workers are in compliance. And no more ‘I forgot’ excuses.”
15. Don’t wear it? Then they don’t work
Disciplining union or salaried employees for PPE non-compliance can be challenging. Oral or written warnings are the only options for first-time PPE offenses for employees in some situations.
Not true for day laborers, non-salaried, non-union employees and contract workers. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid.
More and more foremen and supervisors simply send home workers who don’t obey PPE and other safety rules.
As one veteran foreman says: “Once they get sent home and don’t make a dime that day, they get the message pretty quick! Either they shape up and don’t mess around again, or they choose not to come back here to work. Either way, it works out pretty good for me.”
16. Training idea: Fall protection
Some workers who skip wearing fall protection seemingly don’t care if they get hurt. Share this story with workers at their next safety meeting on fall protection:
A construction worker wore his safety vest while working on a building. But he didn’t tie off his lanyard to a secure anchor point. He somehow lost his footing and fell from the building. The worker died.
He also fell on a co-worker directly below him. The co-worker broke his neck and jaw and suffered a concussion. He’s lucky he wasn’t killed, too. (Info: Calgary Sun)
For more best practices that will get employees to wear their PPE, see the second part of our report.