PPE For Keeping Construction Workers Safe on the Job

PPE For Keeping Construction Workers Safe on the Job

Understanding how PPE works can result in safer workspaces.

According to the Commonly Used Statistics page on the OSHA website regarding the top 10 most frequently cited standards, the construction industry led the way in five of the top 10, including (1) fall protection, (3) ladders, (5) scaffolding, (6) fall protection training, and (8) eye and face protection. In building construction (NAICS 236) alone, there were 2,742 citations given and 1,191 inspections, for a total penalty cost of $9,586,100.

Don’t worry. The construction industry isn’t the lone wolf for OSHA violations. General industries of all types are guilty of the same infractions for worker safety. So, a lot of what we’re going to discuss in this article applies to a wide range of industries, not just construction. 

We’re going to cover two of the top safety concerns: head and eye protection, and fall protection and training. Let’s start with head and eye protection. 

Head Protection Basics and Beyond 

Jobsite head protection comes in two flavors: hard hats and safety helmets. The most visible difference between the two is the brim or lack thereof. Hard hats have brims, either partial or full perimeter, whereas safety helmets are fairly brimless and are “cut out” around the ears. Safety helmet design is similar to climbing helmets. Safety helmets are normally sold with a four-point anchored chin strap. With hard hats, a chin strap is more likely an optional accessory. 

Both hard hats and safety helmets have a place in construction. Because of their snugger design, helmets are great for confined space areas or any job where close encounters with a brim would be problematic. The brim on a hard hat, however, serves several purposes. Not only does it help shade the wearer’s eyes when working outside, but it also protects the worker’s face from falling debris. A full brim hard hat deflects debris from all sides. 

By the way, a partial brim hard hat can only be worn with the brim to the back of the head if specifically designed for that purpose. Check the manufacturer’s specifications. 

Head Protection—Types and Classes 

Type and style are not interchangeable. Type refers to impact protection, and style differentiates between hard hats and safety helmets. There are two types—Type I and Type II—and both are rigorously tested and certified for compliance to ANSI Z89.1-2014 in the U.S. and CSA Z94.1 in Canada. 

Type I headgear is only rated for impacts to the top of the head. For protection against top, off-center and lateral impacts, only Type II is approved for use. Certainly, a Type I hard hat or safety helmet will protect against incidental bumps and hits. But for true impact resistance from any direction other than from directly above, Type II headgear must be used.  

There is a trend toward using safety helmets. I’ve not seen a safety helmet specifically rated as a type II using ANSI or CSA certifications for lateral impacts. Just a heads up, if you’re going to specify them for your crew when side impact hazards exist, make sure they’re certified for it. Climbing helmets are rated using EN 12492: 2012, a European standard. That standard does include side impact testing. 

Hard hat or safety helmet class refers to its electrically conductive properties. There are three classes: Class C, Class G and Class E. Their electrical ratings are as follows: 

  • Class C (conductive) affords no protection against electrical contact. 
  • Class G (general) can be used where incidental contact will not exceed 2,200 volts. 
  • Class E (electrical) is rated for up to 20,000 volts. 

Other Head Protection Considerations and Tips 

Before we move on to fall protection, let’s look at a few headgear quick tips and facts. 

Expiration. Headgear does have an expiration date of sorts. Most manufacturers recommend replacing the shell every four or five years and the suspension webbing every 12 months. By the way, the “born on” or manufacturing date is stamped on the helmet or hard hat. 

Design. The airspace above the suspension webbing serves a purpose. It’s an integral part of the impact resistance factor. It’s NOT a cargo area for gloves or any other objects. It also allows for heat dissipation. Keep it clear of obstruction. 

Accessories. Accessories can further enhance protection. Eye and face protection options and hearing protection are designed to snap onto the hard hat or safety helmet. Only use accessories from the headgear manufacturer. They’ve been tested and certified to work with the hard hat or helmet. Non-OEM aftermarket accessories can be a gamble unless certified. 

Inspection. Finally, inspect hard hats and safety helmets regularly, even throughout the day. Train your team to look for cuts, heavy abrasions, chemical degradation and any other defects on the shell that could compromise the headgear’s effectiveness. Replace damaged accessories like the shock absorbing webbing immediately. 

I know we’ve spent a lot of time on protective headgear, but let’s be honest. Advancements in medicine, science and technology make it possible to live a fairly normal life in the event of a loss of arms and legs, feet and hands. Brain trauma changes your life dramatically. Use your head to protect this irreplaceable “command center.” 

Fall Protection Gear 

I’m going to cover both fall protection (the number one 1try on OSHA’s top 10) and fall protection training (number six ranked violation). I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons fall protection is ranked number one is that training in fall protection is lacking. Kind of makes sense, right? 

OSHA requires that fall protection be used any time the crew member is working at heights. So, what exactly does that mean? The heights vary depending on the industry. According to a safety and health topic page on OSHA’s website, “OSHA requires that fall protection be provided at elevations of four feet in general industry workplaces, five feet in shipyards, six feet in the construction industry and eight feet in longshoring operations. In addition, OSHA requires that fall protection be provided when working over dangerous equipment and machinery, regardless of the fall distance.”

While engineering safety controls are a better solution, they’re not always possible. In that case, PPE in the form of a personal fall arrest system (PFAS) should be considered. A PFAS consists of: 

  • An anchorage point and connectors 
  • A full body harness (safety belts are no longer allowed for fall arrest, only positioning) 
  • A lanyard 
  • Deceleration device 
  • Lifeline 
  • A suitable combination of these components 

The lanyard may be of a fixed length with the deceleration device (shock absorber) integral to it or with the capability of connecting a shock absorber to it. A self-retracting lanyard (SRL) is often used since it is less restrictive for movement, but still provides the required deceleration and stopping distances in the event of a fall. If working near drop offs, such as roof edges, it’s recommended to use an SRL designed for use around leading edges. They’re constructed to withstand the swaying movement inherent in falls over an edge. 

Any component, including the full body harness, involved in a fall arrest must be taken out of service immediately. It’s done its job, time to retire it. SRLs, however, often can be repaired or refurbished by qualified technicians, manufacturer reps in most cases. 

While monthly equipment inspections should be carried out by competent, trained personnel, it’s important that the user inspects the gear before using it and during the course of the work shift. They should be trained in what to look for, particularly the stitching on the harness itself. 

The folded straps on a harness are there for a reason. And the decorative stitching is not just for looks. These components of a harness are part of the mechanism used to slow down the wearer during a fall. When the worker reaches the impact point, the stitches give way and the folds unfurl to provide a bit of a slowdown effect before a hard stop. 

If any damaged stitching or webbing is noticed, the harness should not be used and should be tagged as out of service. 

Make sure your team knows how to properly don a safety harness. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen them worn improperly. Loose leg straps, twists in the webbing and similar improper donning procedures put the wearer at risk of extreme bodily damage in the event of a fall. 

Consider purchasing suspension trauma safety steps, either with or without carabiner attachments. When a person is suspended in a full body harness after a fall, the leg loops will apply pressure to blood vessels in the legs, impeding or stopping blood flow. This can lead to orthostatic intolerance. According to a joint paper written by the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA (SHIB 03-24-2007, updated 2011), "Prolonged suspension from fall arrest systems can cause orthostatic intolerance, which, in turn, can result in serious physical injury, or potentially, death. Research indicates that suspension in a fall arrest device can result in unconsciousness, followed by death, in less than 30 minutes." 

You’ve probably felt a mild form of orthostatic intolerance if your foot or leg has ever “fallen asleep.” The blood flow was cut off and you experienced a mild tingling sensation. In a fall event, the effects are much worse, even life-threatening. 

That’s why a quick recovery of the worker is necessary, even mandated. Suspension trauma safety steps are stirrup-like attachments that allow the suspended team member to alleviate pressure on the legs, and even “pump” them to get the blood flowing. 

Fall Protection Training 

Fall protection for working at heights is an important issue on the construction site or any other venue where workers are exposed to the danger of falling so much so that OSHA has a standard written specifically for training in fall protection. And remember, it’s number six on the most frequently cited violations for 2021. 

The requirements are set forth in 1910 Subpart D “Walking-Working Surfaces” and is outlined in 1910.30 “Training Requirements.” 1910.30(a)(1) states, “Before any employee is exposed to a fall hazard, the employer must provide training for each employee who uses personal fall protection systems or who is required to be trained as specified elsewhere in this subpart…”

The standard states that the bare minimum an employee must be trained in are the nature of fall hazards and how to recognize them; the procedures used to minimize the hazards; and how to install, inspect, operate, maintain and disassemble any personal fall protection systems. That includes hook-up, anchoring and tie-off procedures. 

The actual hazards will vary by the jobsite. Most companies have a team that’s trained in recognizing them and can point them out in inspections done before the work commences. But anyone using the fall protection equipment, including full-body harnesses and related equipment, must be trained in how to inspect, use, care for and store it. 

The last part of the standard states that the employer must provide information and training to each employee in a manner that the employee understands. That’s important. My recommendation is to contact the equipment manufacturer. They often have skilled trainers that can work with your employees. And they can “train the trainer” (one on your team) to conduct additional classes in the future. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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