Let Them Know They're In Harm's Way

Clever employees and careless employees make the program hard to enforce. Some try to stretch the use of disposable, one-time-use PPE, and reuse it.

It was interesting and horrifying to watch at the same time: a dedicated worker who, at first glance, was cleaning his work PPE. On closer examination, he had a large bucket of tepid water with a wide range of gloves being dunked and hung up to dry. These gloves had handled raw sewage and were moldy from improper storage after chemicals use or animal blood. Maintenance liquids such as gasoline, antifreeze, and oils were all in a dark, murky soup. All of them were grossly contaminated inside and out, with no chance of salvage. The challenge was explaining quietly, clearly, and without blame why this practice could not continue and what the danger was to his health and to others at the workplace.

We see a lot of good intentions gone wrong in the safety profession. No matter how tough a situation it is, we as professionals have to transform it into a learning opportunity so that the employee is protected . . . even from himself! This is safety leadership at its best.

Gloves and hand protection should be one of our simplest programs in the wide expanse of safety and health. The availability of fantastic products at a reasonable cost in all sizes imaginable makes it seem easy to put into place. The shelf life and durability of hand protection is unmatched. Often, the employee education section of a great program is the part missing; an absence of supervisory/management leadership from the corporate suite that shows interest in how the PPE is used, cleaned, and disposed of tells of our failures.

We have all seen it: misuse and abuse of PPE, employees making poor choices that limit the effectiveness of their protection. Some employees have one set of gloves that they use for everything, no matter what the situation, causing possibly widespread contamination or exposing themselves to irritants, chemicals, or worse. Others clean with strong solvents (or gasoline), which may create additional flammability hazards or weaken the glove materials. Still others use hand protection as an add-on, to be quickly taken off and stored away.

Some types of hand protection are not indestructible; heat can degrade, inflicting damage that goes unnoticed and will allow potentially harmful exposures if the employee does not understand the PPE limitation or shrugs off the hazards. Employees (such as health care workers) get careless and try to save money or hurry by not changing out gloves as often as necessary, which can spread illness and infections rapidly to patients. Clever employees and careless employees make the program hard to enforce. As terrifying as it may be, some even try to stretch the use of disposable, one-time-use PPE, and reuse it.

Education and Program Management
Gloves and hand protection are needed by some in almost every workforce, from material handling to chemical use, repairs (such as replacing broken windshields), handling metal fragments or filings, cleaning, and in health care, food service, and high-hazard activities involving radiation. Many of us need protection from cuts and abrasions when working with broken or sharp items. Typical hazards include punctures, cuts, chemical/toxic material exposures, vibration, thermal damage, BBP exposures, and even hazards from using the wrong glove and thinking it will protect the worker. Education plays a huge role in a well-managed hand protection program.=

We frequently focus on the employee alone for proper use and replacement. Another key area in the quest for a successful program is the management. Workers usually use what is provided and rarely will use any hand protection at all, if allowed to forgo it.

Managing a hand protection program is more than a supervisor tossing a pair of gloves at an employee. It entails ensuring each employee knows how to assess the work situation and protect himself. Management has to encourage, mentor, and enforce use.

In terms of supervisor awareness, here are a few key points to stress:• Using gloves or hand protection as a first line of defense. Employees must be made to understand that the hand protection is a tool to improve their work safety. They’re not toys and not decorations for the work belt. Ensuring each understands why gloves are needed is a critical focus of any program.

Hand protection’s limitations. The protection of any PPE is only as good as the use. Wearing out-of-service items or PPE that has been abused will almost guarantee failure. Make sure employees understand why they should trade out gloves and how often they should do so. Providing real choices that are correct for the hazard will increase use.

What are the real hazards in the job, and which hand protection is the correct one to use for the situation? With the wide variety available to you, almost all hazards are covered.

How to prevent glove contamination. There are many dangers to the user and others when a contaminated glove is used. Not all gloves or hazards can be cleaned. Not all contamination can be seen.

Proper care of the hand protection. This includes putting on and taking off procedures and appropriate disposal.

How to deal with multiple hazards. Employees need to understand how to protect themselves from combination hazards or once-in-a-while situations that may call for specialty protection.

How to adequately wash hands (a topic often overlooked, in my opinion). Everyone says he knows about basic hand sanitation, ranging from hand gels to soap and water or waterless cleaners. Rarely, though, do employees wash up often or well enough before eating, drinking, or applying cosmetics on the job site.

It is interesting that something seemingly as simple as using hand protection would require extensive management support, but without it there will be hand injuries, exposures, and near misses. The job of the safety professional is to enlighten management and encourage employees through education and enforcement to wear the right PPE all of the time, no matter what. Sound safety leadership is challenging and never ending, but the rewards of improved safety and PPE use are just one of our goals!

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

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