PPE: How to Get Workers to Wear It

Remember, supervisors agreed to encourage and enforce safe work procedures when they accepted the position of a supervisor.

IT is a never-ending battle to get workers to wear any type of personal protective equipment. All types of PPE have their advantages and disadvantages, comforts and discomforts. Getting workers to use it is an endless task. This article's information can be used as a guide to increasing the use of practically any type of personal protective equipment--from head protection to feet protection.

A not-so-hypothetical situation: At a safety committee meeting, the discussion is about whether or not to require workers to wear a certain type of personal protective equipment all of the time, or only in areas and for tasks that are perceived as having a high risk of injury. The safety committee is made up of roughly 50 percent management and 50 percent union workers. (This varies from meeting to meeting, depending on the individuals who attend.)

The discussion is lively, constructive, and informative. One comment that keeps being made is that if the certain PPE is not worn constantly, then on the night shift (and weekends) the workers will not wear it at all. The supervisors cannot watch all of the workers on their shifts all of the time, so the workers will only wear the PPE when the supervisor is in the area.

A Practical Solution
Review each area and/or task in the plant. Also, review injury and incident reports. Decide the areas and/or tasks for which you need to have a hazard analysis completed.

After doing a hazard analysis of each area and/or task on the list, decide what type of PPE will be worn in certain areas and for certain tasks. Create or revise the safe work procedures incorporating this information. The workers must be trained on these new or revised procedures. This is done through a safety meeting where the workers are told of the PPE requirements by their supervisor. Also included are the reasons why this type of protection is required, citing the information from the hazard analysis.

More than likely, the workers will not be receptive of the requirement to wear this PPE. Or they may forget to wear it or even quietly refuse to wear it. Remember, the supervisors have agreed to encourage and enforce the safe work procedures when they agreed to be in the position of a supervisor.

Sending the Message
Why does it seem to be so hard to institute a requirement to wear certain PPE to protect workers from injury? It may be the workers have not fully accepted their company's philosophy of providing a safe and healthy workplace by incorporating safety into all aspects of the business. The first thing to do is ensure managers and supervisors fully support the safety philosophy and follow all of the requirements of the safety procedures. The next step is to train employees on the safety and health philosophy of the company. Ensure the workers understand there is no job, no production schedule, no customer's request, and no manager's decision more important than the safety and health of the worker.

This is not accomplished in safety meetings or safety training alone. This is accomplished by the worker seeing the managers and supervisors considering the task at hand and making it as safe as possible prior to the worker's doing the task. The workers must believe the effort is genuine.

The Training Component
The employees must be trained on the requirements of the new procedure. The employees must understand why the PPE is required. This can be accomplished by using statistics of the types of actual injuries in the plant or in the same SIC industry, the number of first aid cases, information from incident and injury and near-miss reports, or any combination of the above.

Workers are not interested in the cost of an injury. This equates them to a dollar value but not to the concern for the worker by the supervisor and management.

The next questions to cover are exactly what and exactly where. In this situation, the workers need to know all of the places, tasks, and conditions that require the certain type of PPE. This is where the hazard analysis can be used to show how the decision was made for this type of protection. Include an explanation on the different types of protection afforded by the types of PPE being offered to the workers (e.g., gloves, hard hats, shoes, etc.).

This next step is very simple and almost silly to mention, but make sure that when the procedure and subsequent training is instituted, the specific PPE is in the hands of the employees. It makes no sense to institute a requirement for PPE and train the workers, then make the workers wait for the PPE they need to make the task or area safe.

The next area to cover is the how of the enforcement, or encouraging the workers to wear the PPE. After the training is complete, the opportunity is present for observation and positive reinforcement by the supervisor.

When the supervisor sees a worker wearing the proper head protection or other PPE, the supervisor says something positive to encourage the worker to continue the effort. Fellow workers contribute by encouraging one another to wear the required PPE. After a while, the employees probably will change their behavior and accept that the PPE is mandated for their own safety and protection.

This process of observation and positive reinforcement will work at a quick pace for some workers and more slowly for others. Some employees may completely, but silently, refuse to wear the required PPE. These employees need to be handled delicately but firmly, and rather quickly. This can be done with a grace period at the beginning of the time after the workers get their PPE, say, 30 days. After this period, the worker is disciplined according to each company's policies. The discipline must be done swiftly and fairly and regardless of person's position in the company.

By following these basic steps, it should be easier to get workers to wear their PPE.

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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