Although hardhats and hearing protection are, for the most part, in use by tree workers across the PNW, insidious attitudes are always lurking towards PPE whether it is aimed at premium protective equipment, PPE options not required by regulators (gloves, protective footwear or chainsaw pants in some parts of the chapter), PPE care, or the ongoing inspection and replacement of PPE. I expect that most tree care operations and their employees consider themselves to be compliant on the PPE front (particularly those that read this newsletter). If you feel that to be the case with your workplace, I have one question to ask:
Does your workplace request third-party observations and recommendations (formal or informal) on interventions that might improve the outcomes of worker health and safety, worker ergonomics and worker efficiency via PPE?
Hopefully the answer is yes.
It’s probably time to start talking about PPE as a program or system rather than a thick piece of plastic intended to keep skin from disappearing or bones from shattering. The PPE catch-all term is personal protective equipment, worn as occupational protection (e.g. chainsaw pants, hi-vis clothing, hardhat, eye protection, etc.) and includes fall protection equipment (harness, ropes, slings, lanyards, hardware, etc.). In NIOSH’s Hierarchy of Controls, PPE and administrative controls are noted as “...proven to be less effective than other measures, requiring significant effort by the affected workers.”, while elimination or substitution controls are “...most effective at reducing hazards, also tend to be the most difficult to implement in an existing process.”.
Losing workers’ interest on PPE improvements in the workplace will never happen faster than when attempting to showcase OH&S concepts like the Hierarchy of Controls, I might add. Industrial safety models may cast shade on the effectiveness of PPE as a risk control, yet the scenarios we face are notoriously uncontrollable. Equipping workers with knowledge of what PPE is required, what PPE is designed to do, how PPE should be utilized, and when PPE isn’t going to cut the mustard as a risk mitigation approach is how we should be talking about personal protective equipment.
With the arrival of the most advanced and expensive helmet in tree care history comes the reminder that improvements in comfort and protection amount to very little, ultimately, if poor choices are made by the hardhat’s owner. Granted, flashy and comfortable gear may be a strategy to re-open the conversation on PPE to workers that haven’t showed an interest lately. Regardless of whether your workplace consists of one employee working with subcontractor(s), or 200 employees, appropriate and compliant industrial PPE in good condition must be available, applicable PPE must be used where those hazards to a worker exist, and PPE must be maintained and replaced according to the product manufacturer and/or regulatory agency’s guidelines. An owner or manager (or solo subcontractor) would be wise to utilize a tracking system of all workplace PPE as it demonstrates due diligence and shows all workers that PPE matters (there are dozens of versions of free PPE tracking forms available through any web search engine).
Some additional PPE suggestions for an individual worker:
- When you purchase or receive new PPE, read the !&#$ manual.
- Keep the manual/product literature you receive and add it in a box or bag in a dry location at work. Review the literature periodically and you’ll learn something every time. Share that information with your coworkers and subcontractors.
- Use a permanent marker and mark the service entry date on the product literature.
- If your workplace doesn’t have a PPE tracking spreadsheet and isn’t willing to start one, make your own (or download a pre-made PPE tracking sheet).
- Transfer the product name, serial number, service entry date and condition of every piece of PPE assigned to you that you can identify to your PPE spreadsheet. Most product manufacturers provide product literature on their websites if you’ve misplaced them. Inspect your PPE regularly and update your spreadsheet each time. It’s not sexy but it is a solid way to show a occupational safety officer that you are competent.
- When you’re looking to purchase PPE, try before you buy and absolutely seek training from a competent person prior to solo use, particularly with fall protection equipment.
- Get informed second opinions on the condition of your equipment. If there are any doubts of the condition of a PPE item, remove the item from service and render it unusable to prevent the item from re-entering service.
- Treat your PPE like your life depends on it.