Every safety program has the opportunity and responsibility to review selection, use, policy, and follow-up and to make those changes needed right now.

Send the Protection Message Loud and Clear!

Few of us can imagine losing our hearing or vision, or the physical recovery from facial damage from an injury and the hardships this loss would cause to the injured or his/her family and relationships—from time, bills, and potential lost earnings alone. Yet these injuries are very common at the workplace and sometimes are shrugged off as the cost of getting the job done by employees and supervisors alike. What can we as safety leaders do to help drive home the message of always wearing appropriate PPE? And how can we keep our efforts on the front burner with upper management?

At the very core of your safety program is basic use of personal protective equipment for the head: head and face protection, vision protection, and hearing protection. Today’s selections and availability are unlimited, with super-fast delivery and bare-bones pricing. All of these basic program initiatives are completely affordable to all companies, ranging from the shirtpocket contractor with one employee to the high-end, ultra-big corporation. All are easy to audit (by someone who’s qualified) because most of the PPE is clearly identifiable and usually brightly colored. (My advice: Order it brightly colored!)

Our job sites have noise that can cause hearing loss and impact/splash and related situations that can cause lasting vision and facial injury that, in turn, costs big bucks in the long term for the employee and the company. They are preventable injuries, if only the employee had been wearing appropriate PPE at the time. We all know you cannot run a successful safety program only on hindsight. The bad news is that you are teaching prevention, which is tough to do unless armed with real-time examples of other injuries.

When preventing occupational injuries, planning in advance of the injury is critical. There is no way to “go back” and protect the employee from a metal filing in his eye, for example. Failed prevention efforts move instantly into treatment and recovery.

Consider the cost of your company’s most recent accident/ worker’s comp claim resulting from either hearing impairment or eye/face injuries. When I spoke with one plant manager, he said what they’d paid because of an eye injury would have purchased eye and face protection for all of his employees for 10 years, due to the costs of injury, medical treatment, time off work, extra pay for others to pick up the workload, cost of temp help, material damage, reduced production, etc. Add to this the potential visit from an OSHA Compliance Officer and the potential for fines. “Such expenses make the basic cost of PPE suddenly pretty agreeable!”

Words of Wisdom
When speaking about basic PPE, ask yourself and your employees this: “What is the hazard, and what is needed to protect each worker?” Make a list and update it often as hazards change. As a safety professional, you will have to be a combination of leader and a jockey wielding a whip, at times, to get the safety message across to the masses.

You lead by your dedication, example, training, and awareness. Your whip is responsibility for task assessment, your documentation, supervisory accountability, and employee responsibility to use the correct PPE each and every time it is needed. It is a stressful balancing act—but it is a large part of what safety does so well.

With OSHA’s new PPE payment standard having taken effect Feb. 13, 2008, every safety program has the opportunity and responsibility to review selection, use, policy, and follow-up and to make those changes needed right now. Is it easy to do? Yes and no. Depending on the complexity of your operation and the location of your employees (at one job site or in many remote areas?), you will have to depend on input from others and also their personal desire to work safely. This will work well if there is a trust and comfort level with you and your employees. In other cases (we call this fence-mending) what may be necessary is rebuilding that trust and the belief that safety is serving the employee as much as the corporate structure.

PPE is no less important than any tool to get a job done; your approach can mean the difference in employees (and managers) taking the program seriously or shrugging and seeing it as a corporate blister— annoying but not lethal. When purchasing, start small and basic, and then keep adding and upgrading until you are at the level you need. All extra features are not required, but those same extra features can enhance employees’ acceptance and comfort.

Rescue Your Program
If your PPE program is ineffective or sliding toward obscurity, here are a few items to breathe life back into it:

A new approach—use what works. If you have better response from employees with handouts or quick break time meetings, use them. If the best approach is incentives, such as raffles for new styles or providing new equipment all at once to a department, use that. Every workplace has a different personality, and part of the safety professional’s job is to anticipate implementation in a way that will be widely accepted. If you change out PPE, save the serviceable items reclaimed for back-ups when needed!

Advise upper management and financial planners of the need and changes/additions to the selection program. They need to know the basics, then the details, because they are ultimately accountable for the program’s success. Such efforts also enhance your awareness of the safety program’s goals.

Written policy that is readable, understandable, accessible by employees, and enforceable by the administration. If you dread dealing with the written materials, imagine how a new employee wonders what it all means.

PPE that is comfortable with employee input as to style, sizing, and use. They use what they like much better. We all enjoy having input into equipment selection. Employees also have more exposure to the actual hazards.

An overall site audit to determine what is really needed and where/how often. From the everyday to the once-in-alifetime, hazards can often be predicted, and planned corrections can be put in place before the injury happens.

A restocked safety committee with new members who are interested. If your safety committee is tired, it will not be effective. Energize it with new folks.

A general request for assistance in PPE selection from rank-and-file employees. This can be done through meetings, general awareness, or even a survey. You want input from employees on the problems with current PPE they’re using. You will be shocked at the variety of the information you receive— good and also not so rosy.

Constructive follow-up after an accident to verify PPE was used and, if not used, action to prevent the same situation from recurring. You are not placing blame, but making genuine efforts to prevent another employee’s being injured in the same manner.

Making a Good Impression
As safety professionals, we know most injuries are preventable. Ensuring adequate PPE use for the basic protection of vision, head/face, and hearing is quick, affordable, and offers a high return for employee awareness and a chance for increased upper management support. That’s because such a program can show your corporate management your successful safety leadership in reducing costs and on-the-job injuries.

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

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