Choosing the Right Protective Clothing

Choosing the Right Protective Clothing

Three tips for choosing the right kind of protective apparel for workers.

Employers looking to choose the right protective garments for their workers are walking a delicate line. They must look for clothing that is suitable to protect against the unique hazards of the job while also making sure that the clothing does not restrict or make the worker uncomfortable. Protective clothing must meet federal and industry regulations while also allowing workers to finish their job effectively. It is a hard balance to strike, but when done correctly, employers can meet workers in the middle where comfort equals compliance and compliance minimizes injuries. When looking for suitable protective clothing, OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Standard (29 CFR 1910.132 for General Industry) addresses the most important activities to complete when choosing protective apparel on the job: assessment, selection and training.1

Assessing Hazards on the Job
Not all workers require the same protective apparel. The responsibilities of the position, environmental hazards surrounding the worker and the time of day on the job could all be factors when choosing protective apparel.

The first question you should ask is: What am I trying to protect my team members from? The answer to this question is the basis from which the entire PPE program will be built. Employers must be open-minded when assessing hazards during this phase of the process and understand the how each hazard could affect the worker and the work environment as a whole.

Responsibility for assessing hazards should not fall to just one person or organization. Instead, collaborate with workers on the job to see what hazards are most often faced daily. If the person assessing the hazards is detached from the day-to-day operational responsibilities, they can help to avoid inherent conflicts between current practice, production and cost pressures, hazard potentials and best practice.

It is helpful to look at your workplace as a whole when assessing for hazards, but employers should also look at the tasks that workers are completing daily. The following list of potential hazard sources  could be helpful when determining risk and hazards on the job:

1.Motion that includes moving machinery, or machine parts or tools, or movement of personnel that could result in collision with stationary objects
2. High temperatures that could result in burns, eye injury or ignition of protective equipment
3. Chemical exposures that could result in burns, exposure to skin or eyes or respiratory hazards
4. Harmful dust that could result in scratches or burns to eyes or lungs
5. Light radiation that could cause burns to skin and eyes (welding, brazing, cutting, furnaces, heat treating, high intensity lights)
6. Falling objects or potential for dropping objects
7. Overhead obstructions which create head bumping hazards
8. Sharp objects that might pierce the feet or cut the hands
9. Rolling or pinching objects that could crush the feet
10. Electrical hazards

Selection of Proper PPE
PPE is not the entire safety answer, however. Before the selection of PPE, employers should ask themselves if PPE is the sole solution for a hazard, and they shouldn’t rely solely on PPE devices to provide protection if there other ways to protect against the hazard. When approached with a hazard, be sure that guards, engineering controls and sound manufacturing processes cannot be applied first. Oftentimes, the collaboration of PPE used in conjunction with these analytical problem-solving techniques is the key to proper protection and remaining in compliance.

However, even with the implementation of engineering controls, work practices and administrative controls, the need for PPE will dominate. Rules and guidance for selecting protective clothing are more general due to the broad range of hazards protective apparel can address such as heat, flame, arc, and exposures to toxic solids, vapors, liquids, aerosols and bloodborne pathogens.

When choosing proper PPE, the fundamental decisions come down to the fabric, seams and design. Decisions can be based on the following questions:

1. What is the probability of the hazard?
2. What is the likely amount of contact with hazard?
3. What is the expected duration of contact with hazard?
4. From what direction is the contact with hazard most likely?

Training for Proper Wear
Once the PPE has been selected, the employer must communicate the decision to employees. Then, workers must be properly sized and fitted for the protective clothing. Training starts with ensuring that workers know what PPE is required and when.

Training must include how to put on, remove, adjust and wear the PPE. Employees should not only try on the PPE, but they should use it when completing the activity that they will be doing when wearing the clothing to ensure that they are still comfortably and effectively able to complete their tasks.

Employee training is especially important because workers who are comfortable in their PPE are most likely to wear it. Those who are continuously adjusting or even removing their PPE are at risk to be exposed to the assessed hazards of the work environment. Also, incorrect PPE sizing could present more hazards than before, putting workers at risk of tripping and/or being caught up in their own clothing.

The limitations of the PPE—as well as the proper care and maintenance, use life and disposal of the protective apparel—must also be covered when training with the PPE. In the case of chemical and biological protective clothing, understanding the disposal method may require dealing with the exposed garment as a hazardous material itself.

Before deploying the PPE, employers must verify that employees know, understand and follow their PPE training. Employers must retrain an employee if there is any change in work assignment, a change in the type of PPE needed or if improper use is detected.

This verification process can be completed through a physical or paper audit and, unlike other training (such as HazCom), auditing activities are not required annually. However, it is a good idea to couple PPE auditing with mandated training to ensure the PPE program is still effective and that employees are using their equipment in the proper manner.


This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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