Chapter Corner

Use PPE in the Workplace and Keep Your "Eyes" on the Prize

Posted in: Features, May/June 2016

prize.gifThe American workplace is a minefield of potential dangers, coming in all sizes and shapes – sparks, noise, chemicals, falling objects, sharp edges, just to name a few. The smart plan would be to encase workers in a protective bubble, but odds are that such an endeavor would severely hinder productivity. Still, procedures have to be instituted to safeguard employees and prevent workplace injuries, which can result in soaring workers’ compensation costs for employers.

To that end, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires all employers to protect their employees from workplace hazards that can cause injury by not only providing personal protective equipment (PPE) but also by making sure their workers know how and when to use it. When using PPE, whether it’s safety glasses, gloves, earplugs, or full body suits, employers must make sure employees have the proper training regarding:

  • When PPE is necessary and how to properly wear it.
  • What are its limitations?
  • How to determine if the PPE is no longer effective or damaged.
  • How to care for the PPE.
  • Who to inform should the PPE need to be replaced.

The math is simple. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if all workers wear protective gloves it is estimated that more than one million hospital emergency visits by U.S. workers per year could be avoided. Hand injuries alone can cost employers over $500 million dollars per year once you calculate lost time, settlements, etc.

The problem here isn’t that employers are failing to practice what they preach. The problem is that they don’t preach. 

A recent survey commissioned by the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) of safety influencers in the heavy construction industry revealed that the main reason workers chose not to wear PPE when needed was because “employers don’t require or enforce usage.”

While many employers realize that the use of PPE can pay huge dividends in workplace safety, plus result in higher morale and lower insurance premiums, many do not update their equipment, assess new situations, or require rigorous enforcement.

The adverse result is a loss of manpower – which few companies already running on the bare minimum can afford – and higher workers’ compensation costs. For some companies, a high number of injuries can hinder their competitiveness when bidding on certain contracts. This is a high price to pay for the low price of a carton of gloves and safety goggles.

Sometimes, creating a culture of safety on the job can translate to employees' off-work time. I recently worked with a company – one that did not have a stellar record of PPE use – who lost a key employee to an eye injury while he was working on his lawn. He was weed- whacking without wearing protective glasses and caught a rock in the eye, sapping him of all vision in that eye. While the incident didn’t happen at work, the employer still felt the full brunt. The employee was a truck driver for the company and can now no longer do the job as he is unable to renew his Commercial Driver’s License. The employer will lose one of its best and longest tenured drivers in a market where it is hard to find talented employees.

WHY AVOID PPE?

So why are some employees still reluctant to wear PPE? It may be hard to believe, but the top reason stated is, “They don’t feel comfortable on me.” If this is the case for your company, a solution might be to involve employees in the selection of PPE. It may be that more than one style is needed to accommodate the workforce.

The second most common reason is the belief that PPE is not necessary for the task. Employees may have performed the same task for many years and never been injured. But those dice can only roll so far. Why not show employees videos of what can happen or have someone who sustained an injury speak to the group. Trust me, the effect can be jarring.

Another concern is that PPE is unattractive or doesn’t fit properly. If employees are content with their appearance, they will be more likely to use PPE. Increasingly, manufacturers are looking to improve style by offering new color options and looks.

PUSH FOR NEW STANDARDS

Even regulations can be outdated and ineffective. Falls are the leading cause of injury and fatalities in the workplace, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Launching a sweeping overhaul of the walking-working surfaces and PPE Standards to prevent injuries from slips, trips, and falls, OSHA acknowledged that most of its existing standards for walking-working surfaces are more than 30 years old and inconsistent with both national standards and more-recently promulgated OSHA standards addressing fall protection.

Citing the 2009 death of a worker at a chocolate processing plant who fell from an unguarded work platform, OSHA’s proposed rulemaking includes significant revisions to the existing general industry scaffold standards to better protect workers from such injuries. As the rule stands now, employers are commonly only required to use guardrail systems. Under the proposed rule, employers would have to install a second layer of safety in place by choosing the most effective fall protection option as added protection, ranging from the traditional safety nets to self-retracting lanyards. The proposed rule would also allow OSHA to fine employers who allow workers to climb certain ladders without fall protection.

In proposing the new rule, OSHA Administrator David Michaels referred to the 2009 accident by stating, “This is a clear and grave example of the human cost incurred when fall protection safeguards are absent, ignored, or inadequate.”

EMBRACE PPE

For employers, PPE can protect not only their employees but also their company’s bottom line. Implementing programs such as PPE training sessions and a “safe reporting without retaliation” rule will assist in severely decreasing workplace injuries. These programs and the proper use of PPE will also decrease workers’ compensation claims and lower premium costs significantly. A win-win for employers and their employees.

Dustin Boss is a certified risk architect and insurance agent with Ottawa Kent. He designs, builds and implements risk management systems for companies without the luxury of a full time risk manager on staff. He can be reached at (616) 457-1320 and dboss@ottawakent.com.