Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) & Hazard Assessments



What is personal protective equipment (PPE)?

PPE is equipment worn by a person to minimize exposure to specific hazards.  An mitt.gif (8215 bytes) is an example of PPE worn occasionally by people in their homes.  Oven mitts have an occupational use as well.  In the workplace known as the Purdue University Department of Chemistry we concern ourselves with PPE used in many circumstances not ordinarily found in the home of course.  Chemical resistant gloves, aprons, lab coats, dust masks, goggles, face shields, for example.  In many cases regular clothing itself can be regarded as PPE.  The instruction to wear long, cuffless trousers and non-lacing full-coverage shoes when filling liquid nitrogen is an example of PPE which the employer may require the employee to provide.  Most PPE other than "shoes," "long trousers,"  or "long-sleeved shirt" cannot reasonably be expected to be a part of the average person's wardrobe and must be provided by the employer (e.g. chemical-resistant gloves).

Using PPE is only one element in a complete safety program.  A variety of strategies and safeguards are necessary to maintain a safe and healthy work environment.  These include required other safety equipment and engineering controls, standard operating procedures, and worker training.


When should PPE be used?

Hazards exist in every workplace.  Ergonomic hazards, mechanical hazards, chem/bio/rad hazards, slip/trip hazards, falling object hazards; even workplace violence and sexual harrassment are to be regarded as workplace hazards.

Controlling a hazard at its source is the first choice because this method eliminates it from the workplace altogether or isolates it from the worker.  This approach as it applies to substance hazards would require substitution of a material with nonhazardous ones, isolation of hazards, addition of safety features to existing equipment, redesign of the work processes, or purchase of new equipment.  For example, if we could eliminate all the chemicals from Chemistry, we wouldn't need chemical resistant gloves then, would we?  Not entirely practical, of course.  We prefer to continue inventing medicines, fuels, and other materials which we believe improve our world.  And should we spend a jillion dollars to install remote handling equipment so nobody ever has to touch a chemical container or reaction vessel?  Let's hope they never decide that this is a reasonable expectation!  We conclude that the hazards cannot be removed or controlled completely adequately, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be used if the work process is to continue. 

PPE is used to reduce or minimize the exposure or contact to injurious physical, chemical or biological agents.  The hazard is not eliminated by PPE, but the risk of injury can be eliminated or greatly reduced.

PPE should only be used in these circumstances:

  • as a short term measure before controls are implemented
  • where pre-contact control technology is not available
  • where pre-contact controls are inadequate
  • during activities such as maintenance, clean up, and repair where pre-contact controls are not feasible or effective
  • during emergency situations

PPE is commonly used in workplaces to protect against:

  • Disinfectants and Sterilants
  • Paints, degreasers, insecticides
  • Hazardous Drugs
  • Lab Chemicals
  • Asbestos
  • Heavy metals: lead, mercury, cadmium
  • Waste
  • Head injuries
  • Infectious and biological agents
  • Medical service waste
  • Radiation
  • Other physical hazards such as noise, heat and cold
  • Other hazards....

Assessing Hazards

The first step is to identify the particular hazards at the worksite, and in a workplace with hazardous operations as complex as entailed by chemical research, this is a challenge of some enormity.  Many of the hazards are quite obvious, but a formal Hazard Assessment must still be performed:
1) because it's required by law
2) because it creates well-organized written protocols for worker protection

The overall Hazard Assessment process is the sum of individual "task-hazard-assessment" forms.  The tasks defined and assessed in each research group and work group will usually be different.  Chemistry's task-hazard-assessment forms will also include requirements for other safety equipment when appropriate as well as for PPE.  See examples.  

The Hazard Assessment is the supervisor's responsibility (law says so).  This does not mean that the supervisor must personally conduct the hazard assessments, but that he or she is ultimately responsible their appropriateness and adequacy.