Protection From Whatever They Face

This has been a brutal year for many. It’s the perfect time to cast a fresh approach to your head and face protection program.

Even though you purchase the very best PPE for head and face protection, do your employees understand how to use it, take care of it, and replace it? Does your supervisory staff regularly inspect the equipment or provide information and training to the employees wearing it daily? Does your safety staff consider all of the "what ifs" that can happen to head/face equipment? Is prevention and protection first and sound medical treatment/first aid also paramount to everyone you employ?

Brutal: Few words sum up this year so far so well. We've seen ice storms, an EF-5 tornado in Joplin and devastating tornadoes across the South, severe drought, hurricanes, wildfires, plant fires, and much more. Budgets are strained to the max with all of the unexpected expenses. Employees are stressed and exhausted beyond usual. Supervisors are harried, trying to get everything done quickly and in a time-sensitive manner. In the rush to get the work done, often basic care and replacement of damaged items are overlooked.

This is the perfect time to cast a fresh approach to your head and face protection program. As all safety professionals know full well, it only works if worn and in useable condition. If an inspector comes calling today, what will he or she find on your crew?

It is more than a one-time purchase. Head and face protection is a lifetime security blanket for the employee and the employer. When using the head/face protection correctly, the employee is protected from injury, even death, from physical trauma, noise, eye injuries, and inhalation injuries. Each day without incident allows the employee to go home safely from just another day on the job. Few really think about what would happen if the PPE failed (today) and the life-changing or -ending injury that can occur very quickly.

It is your job as safety manager and the supervisor’s job to remind each employee of the hazards and make sure the safety equipment (no matter what it is or how frequently used) is worn, cared for, and replaced. The lifetime security for the employer is reduced liability, lowered worker’s compensation costs, and another day without incident. Improved respect for safety does not hurt, either!

PPE Takes a Beating
As inspectors, most of us have seen it all: orphan used respirators dangling in shops with disgusting layers of dirt and crud on them, warped/cracked head protection, hazed faceshields, or, worse yet, PPE items shared without adequate cleaning between uses. Duct tape and wire holding PPE together so that it appears OK. For many field crews, PPE is damaged from being tossed onto the windshield of the crew truck at the end of the day to bake until it’s needed again.

They alter PPE, use degraded items, and even try to hide broken or unuseable items to avoid problems with supervision. Only field inspections will pick up such issues and help them to work more safely. The trick will be to make sure the employees understand you are there to help, not punish them, so plan ahead how you will accomplish this.

You know what each task requires. Inventory is maintained, but once the PPE is out in use by employees, how do you make sure every employee takes care of his protective equipment and knows how to wear and clean it? You check it in the field!

Things to consider:

  • Consider time. Inspections done on site in the field cannot possibly cover everything all at once. You can spot check at best, so pick one category (such as head/face protection) and give it a full evaluation. Look at fit, sizing, condition, appropriateness of each item. Evaluate everyone exactly alike.
  • Train, don't humiliate. Inform, don't ridicule. Give them a hand up, not a beating down for PPE issues. Your safety program will shine for this approach.
  • Use the inspection as a training experience for employees and allow them to ask questions. Don't forget to have replacements on hand when needed so that work can continue. You are trying to help them help themselves, not make them lose work time going back to the shop. Be pleasant, cordial, and don't waste their time, but do not skimp on doing your job, either.
  • Ask your worker's comp person for some statistics and examples of accidents and long-term results from not wearing head/face protection on the job for your workplace. Speak in terms the employees can understand, such as "you lose your eyesight and you will not be teaching your kids to drive, or watching your kids' varsity games." Or talk about the damage inhalation injuries can cause in the long term, as well as tinnitus and permanent hearing loss from not using hearing protection. Tie each injury to something important in your employees' home life.
  • Never assume. Teach your supervisors what to look for and how to inspect each item or PPE type so that next time, they can do this without you. Be specific and as needed give them a sheet of do's and don'ts for each PPE type. If you do not know yourself, ask your vendor; each company has technical assistance personnel who will be thrilled to help. Keep the training on a basic level, not weighed down by legal jargon. Allow them to ask questions often in groups and in private. It helps.

Safety professionals are the stewards of education, no matter what PPE or protective apparel item is used. Know your inventory and the good/bad/ugly of each item. Your employees will test your knowledge. And if you do not know, admit that, too. Treat your supervisors and employees with respect, diligence, and consistent (pleasant when possible) safety inspection services, and you will be rewarded with better compliance and future respect. When employees and supervisors trust you as safety, it makes the job easier and much more rewarding, with fewer hassles. And the employees go home without injury.

2011 Head and Face Protection Checklist
No matter the season or the work to be done, chances are that your crew use some sort of head/face protection, ranging from the simplest of head coverings to hard hats, vision protection, hearing protection, and respiratory protection for all types of work environments. You train, you budget, you purchase, you hope, but do you field inspect?

The following checklist may help you evaluate your program for the often-overlooked critical inspection that is more than "have you got one?"

  • As part of your PPE program, has your facility been comprehensively evaluated by a trained/knowledgeable safety professional for potential hazards requiring any type of head, face, or vision protection while at work? Is this documented?
  • Is there an actual list associated with the budget for yearly purchases and replacement items? This is not a "wish list," but a "commitment list" in the event your employees need PPE/protective apparel so you as the employer can meet the need in a timely manner with a quality protective item.
  • Has the potential of hazards that are normal and not routine been evaluated by someone who is knowledgeable and qualified? Is this documented and routinely discussed with management?
  • While PPE is a last route for employee protection on the job, is careful thought given to long-term use and how to reduce employee exposure to the extent possible?
  • Has a comprehensive list of all needed PPE been developed for these jobs so that all needed items are ordered and readily available in sizes and levels of protection needed?
  • Are regular updates and discussions held with supervisory staff to ensure each stays current with safety on site and follow-up to any sort of PPE questions?
  • Have you actually instructed your supervisory or crew chiefs on how to use each piece of PPE required? Have you watched them during training to ensure they take it seriously?
  • In this training (that you document), is a detailed inspection performed on each item? Careful attention needs to be paid to damaged, mishandled, non-useable items, such as respiratory protection that has been internally altered.
  • Is a critical evaluation given to sanitation of all PPE that is in use or stored?
  • Do you quiz your supervisors to ensure they actually inspect employee equipment? What do they look for?
  • Rate your field inspection program for success. Is it minimal effort or a quality inspection program, with replacements issued quickly? Would you want to wear this PPE in the condition you've seen it?
  • How long does it take for supervisors to field inspect safety equipment? Minutes? Inspection is more than a quick look-see; it requires active interaction with each employee to make sure he/she understands how to wear, take care of, and clean or replace each item.
  • Are hazards that may occur on all shifts evaluated? How about non-routine duties, such as confined space or cleaning duties while the plant is closed?
  • Is effective evaluation of remote work and isolated work locations completed to protect all employees, contractors, or visitors, such as vendors? Is this documented?
  • As part of the field inspection or evaluation, is PPE physically inspected for damage, proper fit, and correct use?
  • Do supervisors watch employees self-inspect, clean, and store PPE correctly?
  • Do supervisors order/reorder PPE as needed for all employees? Does someone track these orders to ensure they are reasonable?
  • Is first aid evaluated and upgraded as needed for on-site and remote crews? Is first aid training up to date for all crews?
  • Are areas requiring head and face protection marked off-limits to unauthorized personnel or employees without proper PPE? Is this policy strictly enforced? Do supervisors also follow these rules?
  • Are your employees aware of how to mark off-limits areas where remote work is being completed? Is this documented?
  • Are there processes at your facility where open, overhead hazards are present and constantly changing (such as on construction sites)? Does a professional walk the site daily (or more frequently) to evaluate these changing hazards? Is there a process in place to identify and correct any hazards that are discovered that can be quickly corrected?
  • Do you evaluate glare, heat stress, high humidity, and cold stress issues when selecting PPE?
  • Do tasks and processes at your facility require the use, transfer, or cleanup of chemicals? If so, do you have a comprehensive PPE program for employee protection from chemical and physical hazards, including cleanup and disposal operations? Are these closely monitored?
  • Are employees handling or performing entries involving storage or use of hazardous or corrosive solid granular products? Do you evaluate to ensure head/face protection items do not interfere with employee safety in such situations?
  • Is appropriate safety signage identifying hazardous areas prominently displayed in appropriate languages for the job site?
  • Are PPE items inspected specifically for signs of excessive wear?
  • Are faceshields provided in addition to protective eyewear, not instead of it?
  • Are employees trained to care for their own PPE and to inspect it daily for degradation and damage? Are they told how to report problems with the PPE and how to obtain replacements?

Be honest with your safety program efforts and yourself. A checklist is not a replacement for a comprehensive safety program, but it can jog your memory, help you think outside the box, and allow you to focus with a fresh perspective on the needs and possibilities of the moment. Protect your employees, no matter what.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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