PPE & the Value Proposition

There's a theory that says the Harley-Davidson culture probably does more to ease the world's problems than most. It refers to how disposable products can increase your carbon footprint.

All man-made products consume energy to bring them to a usable state. Today, consumers and decision-makers must consider the embodied energy in disposable products if that energy is to be better utilized. Embodied energy is that amount that was expended and still resides within a useful product. Viewing it as conservable is an enlightened approach. Buying PPE based on decisions made for purely economic or marketing reasons can result in shortened useful life cycles. That means more processing and shipping required to "fuel" that demand, hence, a bigger carbon footprint.

Goods that are made and intended to be more beautiful, or to be kept longer, result in less energy expended. There is a strong resemblance in this theory to the old adage, "make do and mend". This was the cultural mainstay during the war years in the UK and Europe. The cost of producing consumer goods took valuable resources away from the war effort. Energy and materials were at an exorbitant premium. Those challenging days are still known for prized design and a long-lasting quality. Maybe you've noticed the number of 50 year old sewing machines still in operation?

Some would say those days are upon us again. Buyers of PPE are faced with choices on a regular basis. Those choices are now more compelling than ever, given the body of evidence in favour of enlightenment for health and the environment. Some decisions are harder to make than others but nobody said it would be easy saving the world, one piece of used PPE at a time. Nowhere is this more crucial than how buyers of PPE deal with the issue of PVC. The health hazards associated with PVC are long-known facts. PVC is the most dangerous material ever manufactured. Likewise, the benefits of PVC gloves in the medical/surgical fields are equally well known.

Environmentally aware buyers of PPE are challenged to see through the slick promotional stuff and consider the environment and personal health. Disposable PVC gloves are not dangerous in themselves. If wearing a pair of them was not a good idea the medical profession would soon put a stop to them. What is dangerous though are the millions and millions of them disposed of in landfills all over the country. PVC in garbage can lengthen the biodegradable breakdown period by hundreds of years. This is defeating the most vital process we have yet invented for dealing with the world's waste.

The Importance of Better Design
What must now be considered is how PPE can be made to last longer. Also, making a product more beautiful positively impacts how long the article will be considered desirable. A sense of ownership imbues a sense of husbandry. This all means that better design is becoming vitally important. Harley-Davidson motorcycles have long been considered both beautiful and well designed. The culture that blossomed around them saw grown men love, repair and polish their machines for decades. This is an excellent example of energy conservation and world husbandry.

The various qualities of PVC medical/surgical gloves are not known to me as it's not my area of "expertise". But, I know safety footwear is a good example of how wise decisions can have a positive effect on our health and that of generations to follow. Safety footwear has on average a 6 month useful life span. It’s fair to say that replacing defective safety footwear that frequently is an expensive cost. Footwear products made of PVC are often mistakenly viewed as cost-effective. Evidence of this is seen in the many cheap imports from Mexico and China, for example.

Cheap PVC material cannot withstand the roughness of an industrial workplace. It is not suited either to the North American climate with our extremes of hot and cold climates. Stress points, cracking and splitting all render PVC-made safety footwear useless in an even shorter time. It's reasonable to assume then that PVC safety footwear is unlikely to result in a longer life span. It's quite possible too that workers wearing shiny plastic safety footwear would not have much pride of ownership.

The "embodied energy" theory then would endorse a purchase of safety footwear that lasts longer and is considered more beautiful. Within the safety footwear business there are such products. Ones that are more robust than PVC, that make the wearer feel good and improve comfort. Buyers of PPE, in a sincere way, need only examine why they buy a particular item to find reasons why other products might be a more enlightened decision.

Editor's note: Patrick Smyth is CEO of SafetyToes International Inc., www.safetytoes.com.

Posted by Patrick Smyth on Sep 25, 2009