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PPE the Automotive Industry Needs to Invest In
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that companies protect their workers from general workplace hazards that can cause injury or illness. Identifying and controlling potential hazards at the source is the most beneficial way to ensure the workplace is as safe as possible. However, working in industries where heavy lifting and dangerous machinery is present, OSHA also requires employers to provide personal protective equipment to keep any outlying hazards from hurting employees.
The OSHA general industry PPE standards that outline employer obligations, which can be found online at www.osha.gov, are as follows:
- Performing a hazard assessment of the workplace to identify and control physical and health hazards
- Identifying and providing appropriate PPE for employees
- Training employees in the use and care of the PPE
- Maintaining PPE, including replacing worn or damaged PPE
- Periodically reviewing, updating, and evaluating the effectiveness of the PPE program
While PPE is needed for all industries—construction, manufacturing, transportation, etc.—the automotive industry must take careful PPE precautions because of the dozens of potential hazards present at the automotive plants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported1 in 2011 that "workers in the automobile and light duty motor vehicle manufacturing industry experience higher rates of injury and illness than do workers in most other industries."
The most crucial PPE components that matter most for the automotive industry in particular are:
Foot protection comes in many forms, as workers have to protect themselves against metatarsal breakage and plantar fascia strain. Metatarsal breakage can occur when working in an auto plant because workers are constantly expected to perform repetitive tasks, including heavy lifting and operating dangerous machinery. All of these actions can lead to heavy machinery and objects falling on one’s foot and shattering the metatarsals and phalanges.
Employers need to provide PPE that can aid in this scenario, in the event of an object striking an individual's foot. Work boots should provide full coverage of the foot. Those who do not work full time in the auto factory, visitors, and management should utilize composite-toed overshoes2 as a precaution. Composite-toe overshoes are 25 percent lighter than regular steel-toe overshoes and are a cost-effective alternative for workplaces that cannot provide everyone with work boots.
Plantar Fascia Strain is another common culprit of employee pain. At an auto plant, workers are standing on their feet all day, which often leads to discomfort and even strains. Providing workers with dual-layer anti-fatigue memory foam insoles3 not only provides tremendous comfort for all-day standing, but also reduces the risk of foot disorders, pain, and strains. As a bonus, look for insoles that have shock absorption. Anti-fatigue insoles that provide shock absorption allow energy to be absorbed by the insole when something strikes the foot, which decreases the energy that would otherwise be absorbed by the joints and soft tissue. Providing workers with personal anti-fatigue insoles reduces pain, fatigue and health care costs while increasing productivity and employee engagement.
Eye and Face Protection
Because auto plant workers are around molten metal, liquid chemicals, and flying particles from welding, eye and face protection are extremely vital. The first step in avoiding this is for employers to engineer administrative controls in these environments, such as using machine guards and shields between workstations or around specific machines. While these barriers can help initially, it is still important for all employees who work around these materials to have protective goggles or faceshields if they are working in direct contact with the material.
There is a wide variety of eyewear and face PPE to choose from, and it is suggested that the employer identify all of the potential safety hazards and choose the proper PPE that checks all of those boxes. For example:
- Grinding, machining, sanding, and riveting all call for safety spectacles that have side shields.
- Molten metal requires faceshields due to high likelihood of splashing.
- Sanding or other dusty operations are best served with goggles.
- Welding jobs require helmets, ideally with a lift-front window, to protect against molten metal splashes and potential burns.
One of the most overlooked PPE items across all industries is hearing protection. Workers at an auto plant may be exposed to extremely loud noises on a daily basis, which can likely result in hearing impairment. To best combat this, companies must start at the source. Start by enclosing loud machinery within a sound-insulated barrier and installing anti-vibration machine mountings when possible. If isolating these machines is not an option, other means include: installing panels with noise dampening material throughout the workspace, fitting silencers to exhaust systems, or providing acoustic screens. Regularly scheduled maintenance is also important to ensure equipment is running smoothly and not making unnecessary noises.
Once the preliminary measures are taken, employers need to offer supplemental hearing protection, such as ear plugs or ear muffs. In workspaces in which noise levels exceed 85 decibels (which many auto plants do), workers are at a higher risk of hearing loss over time. This is why it is so crucial to take the measures of not only keeping loud machines as far away from the workers as possible, but offering this second source of added protection so workers can guard their eardrums from the sound percussions.
Auto plant workers are exposed to a variety of harsh environments that require all-over protective gear. Employers should provide the following PPE apparel: aprons, coveralls, coats, pants, hats, hoods, sleeves, gloves, and totally encapsulating chemical protective suits.
When deciding what apparel to purchase, it is important to select clothing based upon its ability to resist different agents, such as flames, chemicals, and sharp objects.
In general, there are several types of fabric to defer to when buying PPE apparel:
- Wool—fire resistant and comfortable
- Leather—protects against flames and dry heat
- Heavy fabrics—puncture resistant, protects against heavy and sharp materials
- Rubber—protects against chemicals
Beyond providing the correct type of apparel, it is also important to specify that workers avoid wearing dangling jewelry or loose-fitting clothing and not wear their hair long.
One key component of health and safety practices is the use of PPE, as it is one of the only defenses against workplace hazards. The first thing a company must complete to ensure the highest safety standard is a hazard assessment. Once all hazards are determined, the correct protective equipment can be decided on. However, providing the proper PPE is only the first step. If employees don't know when or how to use it, the items are useless.
Training workers is vital in making sure the PPE is doing its job in protecting the users. The training should include educating workers on: when protection is necessary, how to properly wear and adjust the protective items, the limitations, and proper care and maintenance. It is important that employers constantly provide and educate their employees on PPE because when a machine malfunctions or a human error is made, the added protection aids in reducing injury and can even prevent death.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.