Everyday Protection -- PPA Responds!

Whatever the task, there has never been better availability for employee protection than right now in this category.

What can stop a speeding bullet or bomb fragments, repel fire, and protect the wearer from caustic or toxic substances and even the deadliest of pathogens? Personal Protective Apparel (PPA) can. To me, it is a superhero of safety!

Originally, PPA meant adding on an additional layer of clothing to protect the employee from grease or dirt. As time and technology met the larger needs of our workplaces, PPA has taken a lead role in employee protection from all hazards. No longer an afterthought of the workplace, PPA takes front and center stage for selection options, material and construction, wearablilty, comfort, and sizes.

Ask any employee who relies on some type of specialty apparel to get them through the day, and he or she can tell you instantly the uses, abuses, and limitations of the item. You will be surprised at how much information on brands, selection, and durability these employees know, too! Whether working in soggy, insect-infested swamps for environmental efforts, on a SWAT/security/police detail with a high potential for violent activities, handling the most delicate medical procedures (such as a heart transplant on a Hep B patient), or even food service sanitation efforts to prevent contamination of the food supply — there has never been better availability for employee protection than right now.

From the mild to the wild, today’s choices and materials for personal protective apparel offer almost the unimaginable. Workplace hazards have increased and evolved, and PPA has met those challenges. From unseen deadly pathogens and cleanroom applications to barrier protection from insects and toxins, temperature protection, and moisture and radiation shields, PPA is available to equip any employee to get the job done. Each item of PPA is constantly upgraded, including basic coveralls in newer materials, with stain resistance, coatings, and fits/styles that serve active employees who work in harsh conditions.

How do you manage all of this? Instead of allowing your protective apparel to grow on its own, isn’t it time to bring the key elements of a program together, once and for all, and manage it? Here are some items to consider as you bring the parts into a fully functioning program.

Effective PPA Management
1. Advise upper management first. Corporate management plans its budgets for the long term and hates surprises! Let corporate leadership know up front and ahead of time what is involved and how PPA will add to the bottom line by reducing employees’ exposures. Provide facts and costs of worker’s compensation cases and potential for gain by avoiding lost work time and medical costs, temporary replacement costs, etc.

This is a time for number crunching at its best, so be prepared with several years’ worth of data and a firm plan of action to reduce costs or contamination to product by having your employees use PPA. Have a bottom-line cost per quarter for the next several years and add to that the replacement costs, program set-up costs, etc. Add to your plan how to implement the program and who will do what and when. Do you stagger in PPA use or roll out the entire program at one time? These are upper management issues. Are there related PPE items, such as respirators or gloves, that are needed? Better plan those in, too. The costs can appear overwhelming at first unless you have done your homework.

2. Consider the need. Do your research for industry hazards and compare what you find to your workplace. Ask questions— lots of questions! Target your long-term employees and supervisors first on what is needed and what is actually used. Then quiz the purchasing agents to see what is really ordered, how often, and by which departments. Ask HR and your safety committee to be actively involved in this process to ensure everyone is represented. Then, compile a list and compare it against the task analysis for your company. You will be surprised at how much PPA is already ordered and used in the workforce.

3. Select wisely. Selection can be as easy as a mouse click at a super deal store online or as detailed as having selection committees try different industry samples and track use, durability, employee acceptance, and cost. Depending on the hazard and potential for injury/illness, all selection processes work. Consider multipurpose items, too.

For expensive program start-ups, using an industry rep, consultant, or other vendor contact can save time and effort. These experienced salespeople know the products through research and feedback from other companies and can offer you a wide range of prices, samples, and multiuse options. In the long run for a large program, this can save you not only money, but also valuable time. And it furthers employee acceptance.

4. Devise a rational budget. My best advice? Get help! Talk to your purchasing agent and your PPA vendor(s) about costs. Ask other safety professionals and review some of the online safety chat rooms for advice. Look for the hidden money grabbers. Remember: Whatever you go to upper management with is what you are stuck with for at least a year’s budget cycle. Be rational, and add in some cushion for those things you have overlooked.

5. Don’t forget training and education. Who will train? How often? Will it be hands on? All of these are important issues to discuss with your safety training team (or for you to decide). Examine how your employees learn best. Visually? Hands on? Online? Ask vendors for training materials and also search the Internet for information. How will the program be documented? Who is the contact person for problems? With training and its importance to safety, the more questions you consider, the more you think of. Make a long list. Be kind to yourself and allow supervisors to train as much as possible.

Auditing Your Program
One of the most overlooked areas of any PPA program is follow-up. Once the apparel items are given out, someone knowledgeable about the need for, use, and limitations of each type of PPA should follow up to make certain the items are in fact ordered, distributed to those needing them, used appropriately, and disposed/cleaned correctly.

Such follow-up also provides an excellent opportunity to ask questions of the users and ensure that the items provided are correct for the hazards that are present. More than once, a bulk purchase of some type of PPA was done and the unopened boxes left sitting on a shelf until needed in the future—only to have the managers discover months or even years later that the wrong size or item was ordered, or that the item’s shelf life had expired and the protective item was not effective.

Feedback -- Good and Bad
Solicit feedback on the program and brace yourself for both good and bad. You can not make everyone happy; unfortunately, the whiners are often the loudest voices at a workplace. Find out what is working and ask how to improve. Take notes. Some things you cannot change, while others can be altered quickly.

Employees like to be listened to when they complain, so listen and learn. You learn a lot through feedback, and we all know that safety professionals have a thick skin for criticism!

Update the Corporate Leadership and the Employees
Don’t forget to provide updates to upper management. You want to provide consistent feedback of what is working in your PPA program and your efforts to keep it all moving forward. Use awareness to keep the PPA program in front of employees, too, through posters or other awareness items. Remember, PPA is a work in progress, not a one-time item.

There are no simple safety programs, and personal protective apparel is a great example of this. No matter whether you are consolidating several fragments of a PPA program or starting from scratch, there is a lot of safety work to be done, and it takes months, even years, to see the rewards. But protecting our employees makes it all worth the efforts.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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