Heading Off Disaster

Every employee must understand clearly the hazards of her job and how wearing appropriate PPE will protect her while getting the job done.

FEW workplace injuries leave more noticeable scars and jagged reminders than head/face injuries. Scarring, burns, pitted or uneven skin texture, severe sunburn or frostbite damage, or disfiguring skin pigmentation changes can be forever present after an injury to the face or head. You cannot always rely on a hat (or makeup, for the ladies) to cover such scars because many facial injuries and lacerations are fully visible at all times. Emotional scarring occurs, too, and lasts long after the physical injuries heal.

The associated hazard list is lengthy: floor-stripping chemicals, corrosive cleaners, dip tank splashes, broken teeth from slung debris from machinery, treated composite dust and sawdust causing eye irritation, blood or bodily fluid exposure, projecting pipes and overhangs causing lacerations to telephone and maintenance staff. Why should you protect an employee's head and face? To protect some of his best assets and some of your corporate ones, as well!

I happened to overhear an employee from another company telling a story at the local feed store of being injured while moving equipment when he walked into the edge of storage rack. He was in a hurry and not looking where he was going when he struck the rack.

"Were you hurt?" "No sir, not at all. Just broke these teeth here in front and a couple of stitches in my lip." Ah, well . . . in safety there is much to ponder. I did have to ask him what he considered an injury. This very young man shrugged the question off with a gap-toothed smile and went back to loading feedbags.

Your facility may go years without a serious head and face injury. And for every reported injury, you can count on the solid chance that others go unreported.

By the way, you may want to re-evaluate your eye/face protection program if your employees are using corrosives to clean ovens. You may find there's a need for another eyewash in the area. Check your MSDSs carefully for your needed PPE.

PPE Assessment & Training
If you as a safety professional want to hear snorts of disgust, try providing head and face protection training without knowing the products and having some examples of injuries to discuss with the group. The employees feel you are wasting their time, and you are probably doing more damage to your PPE program than good.

How comfortable are your employees using the PPE? If they have to fumble and figure out how to put on the PPE when asked, chances are it is not being used consistently.

Conduct a PPE assessment throughout your facility. Have all crossover duties been included? Every company has a "jack of all trades" who can fix or do just about any task. Is this valuable individual fully trained and covered with the needed PPE? Hairnets, snoods, welders' gear, hard hats, bump caps, face warmers, faceshields, etc.--the array of PPE is limitless, with many unique items created for specific applications.

Most folks think of the abrupt when thinking of head/face protection: protruding nails or pipes, jagged edges, chemical dousings, sudden impact injuries that cause physical damage. But other injuries occur, including sunburn, cold damage, and bloodborne pathogens exposure. When assessing your PPE needs, think of any and all potential injuries at first, and then narrow the field to the realistic.

Any job task needs to be evaluated for head/face protection, especially heavy industry and construction activity. Every employee has the potential for injury depending on his duties and available protection. Review your company's injury log for trends.

If your employees have adequate head/face protection equipment and training, and yet you still find PPE with a thick coating of crud/dust from not being used, items still in their boxes or not maintained properly, your program has just failed. That's the bad news; the worse news is trying to jump-start your personal enthusiasm to get the PPE program back moving forward.

Safety professionals get burned out with so much to do and little positive feedback. We rarely hear when things are going right. Giving up is always in the back of our minds, but rarely is it a real option for such a hearty breed of professionals with inherent thick skins. We just juggle all those whining safety needs and try again the next day. As we all know, safety is a never-ending job.

Every employee must understand clearly the hazards of her job and how wearing appropriate PPE will protect her while getting the job done. She must further understand PPE is a requirement of employment. Such training can take several forms, including computerized interactive or video presentations, tailgate safety talks, one-on-one discussion (such as when the PPE is issued), and poster/handout materials. The main objective is to provide adequate PPE that fits well and is suitable for the job, then to have each affected employee wear the PPE when necessary. This is no small task to accomplish.

People make mistakes on every job site every day. You as the safety professional may have to plan for the unexpected and have PPE on hand for cleanup operations following an accident, a spill, or some form of major natural disaster. Typical hazards that can cause head and face injuries include exposure to toxics, flying objects such as when doing grinding or using a chipper, or splashes using chemicals. And injuries can occur during many activities, even building maintenance and inspections. Chances are if someone is doing active work, they need to consider their personal need for PPE.

Appropriate hand washing/sanitation and first aid treatment are essential elements, as well. Untreated or poorly treated minor injuries can lead to infection and prolonged treatment that could have been prevented by having and using first aid supplies immediately.

Ensuring Compliance
It really is the simplest of concepts, yet the hardest to enforce: Workers should wear head/face PPE responsibly and consistently. Wear it each and every time it is needed. Have it on before it is needed to ensure it is in place when needed. Employees hate head/face protection, as a rule. It musses hair, streaks makeup, is hot to wear, sometimes makes the employee feel closed in, and most importantly, doesn't always look "cool" to others. But having a consistent program means everyone wears his PPE. The one not wearing it is out of place. Fortunately, the new materials and products available today do help with comfort and weight concerns.

Suggesting head/face protection will not work at any level. As the safety professional, you and supervisors must do the task assessments and must identify and document the duties requiring head/face protection. Program approval has to begin with top management and work down to the worker folk who are wearing the equipment. This is not a democracy--decisions for workers' protection must be made and followed scrupulously, grumbling employees or not. After an injury is not the time to decide head/face protection was needed.

Workers "follow the leader" on job sites. So ask yourself: Do upper management and safety professionals wear appropriate head/face protection on the site? Are these levels of management subjected to the same training and product selection as workers?

Emergency Situations
PPE can only work as designed if worn when needed. The best PPE is useless if not in place when an accident happens. It is an important part of the safety professional's job to know the hazards of your site and what protection each and every employee may need (for example: impact hazards, chemical splash protection for liquid hazards, hard hats for overhead or impact hazards, and more). Many specialty items are available. There are combination PPE items that cover all the bases, including hearing/face/head protection in one unit. Purchase several different types and have employees try them out.

When working, most of us focus on the job at hand, not the dangers to our faces or heads. We crawl into unknown areas searching for that leak, squeak, or break, looking only ahead, not above. We realize danger is present when our heads strike something or something strikes us. Some jobs are emergency situations, and PPE must be in place before the emergency or it will not be in place when needed. Use must be familiar, especially in emergency situations where frustration levels are high and tolerance for new ideas can be low.

An injury that happens in only a second, such as a splash of caustics, a gash from striking a protruding nail, or a burn, can forever damage or destroy a life or ego. This is not simple vanity, but destruction from workplace injuries at the most basic level. Protect your employees by having proper PPE for head/face protection and making sure those items are worn. The drive to protect employees is the basis for safety professionals everywhere.

Selecting Hearing Protectors
Compliance at a glance! Hearing protection has never been easier than it is now. Cost effective at pennies a pair, upbeat styles wear comfortably and their cheerful colors make a "win-win" situation for management and workers alike. The safety professional's job is easier, as well, because evaluating compliance with the requirement to wear hearing protection means scanning the workforce at task, and easily viewing the visual cues from today's hearing protection that comes complete with brilliant colors, bands, cords, and carrying cases. You can determine who is not in compliance and quickly get that worker protected. Many items are disposable; others are easily sanitized for reuse. Selected sizes or custom molding, your choices are available and ready for use.

Be sure to have a selection of hearing protection available in all sizes/models for employee use. Train your folks on proper insertion, use, cleaning and disposal. Also inform employees on the "pitfalls" or limitations of misuse. One example is having a false sense of security from removing one ear plug in order to talk while working in the noisy environment. Many of us have done this, but the problem may be in not replacing the hearing protection correctly or quickly enough to prevent damage. Consistent use provides the best protection for all employees wearing hearing protection.

Allow employees a voice in the items you order. This helps to ensure employees' acceptance of the hearing protection. One sure-fire method is to order a selection of products and let the employees evaluate which ones wear best. Re-evaluate the items selected and introduce new items on a regular basis. No one really enjoys wearing PPE, but better comfort and selection do make it easier to comply.

This article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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