Eshcol Safety & Health Consult Ltd
The ergonomics of personal protective equipment

The ergonomics of personal protective equipment

Richard Graveling from the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors explains the importance of ensuring that the personal protective equipment (PPE) chosen fits and suits the wearer.

We do not expect everyone to wear the same size clothes, so why buy one model of PPE for everybody? We should consider the ergonomics of PPE – comfort, size and shape – but also individual perception of risk.

To many people, ergonomics is about how they sit at their desk or the layout of the controls in their car. The reality is very different and, although how people sit and work is important – as is how their workplace is designed to enable them to do that correctly – the science of ergonomics is much more far-reaching. Many major accidents attributed to ‘human error’ stem from poor ergonomic design.

The PPE Use Directive (89/656/EEC) and the UK regulations that enacted its provisions brought ergonomics into the frame, in that ergonomic requirements for PPE must be taken into account, although it gave little insight into what those requirements might be. Is it just about sizing? Does ‘comfort’ come into it?

For those who delved deeper, the parallel Manufacturers’ Directive (89/686/EEC) gave a little more insight. Under the title ‘Ergonomics’ it stated: “PPE must be so designed and manufactured that in the foreseeable conditions of use for which it is intended the user can perform the risk-related activity normally while enjoying appropriate protection of the highest possible level.”

A little further on, under the heading ‘Maximum permissible user impediment’ it further stated that any impediment caused by PPE to movements, postures and sensory perception must be minimised, and it must not cause movements that endanger the user or other persons.

So, ergonomics is about more than comfort and fit – although these are important factors. Poorly designed ergonomics can get in the way, restrict movement, or otherwise make it harder for the wearers to do their job. If this results in an employee not wearing the PPE, or failing to wear it correctly, then the result can be serious and possibly fatal.

Providing the right protection

It is clearly important to ensure that employees are provided with the right level of protection for the risks they face. In some cases this might be a simple choice between a ‘bump cap’ or a full safety helmet. In other instances, especially in the field of respiratory protection equipment (RPE), the choices can be more complex.

It is easy to think ‘the bigger the better’, and giving a single level of protection makes it easier to manage, as you don’t have to check that your employees have the right level of protection for the job in hand. However, hearing defenders with higher levels of protection, for example, tend to be bulkier and heavier, and the higher level of protection increases the sense of isolation. These factors are likely to discourage employees from wearing them. Similar principles can apply to other forms of protection such as RPE.

Ensuring a good fit

With some forms of PPE, size and shape can really matter. This is particularly important for RPE, where having the right size and shape and ensuring the equipment correctly fits the wearer is critical. Take a look around your workforce or the office. Do you have men and women? What about different ethnic groups? We don’t expect them all to wear the same sizes of clothes – so why do we think that we can buy one model of RPE and expect it to suit everybody? In the UK, this is recognised by the requirement for face-fit testing for certain forms of RPE. Studies have shown that most of the leakage that occurs with RPE in use is around the outside – not through the filter – and, if the mask is not worn correctly all the time – not just for the face-fit test – then it won’t do its job.

Although the effects are perhaps not quite so dramatic, other forms of PPE such as safety footwear differ in shape and size, and getting the right fit can make it easier to ensure that your workforce wear them whenever they are required. Would you like to be forced to wear uncomfortable shoes all day? If it isn’t comfortable when worn correctly then either the employees will avoid wearing it whenever possible, or they won’t wear it correctly.

Minimising impediment

Sometimes the equipment can get in the way of the job. This can be a physical obstruction – wearing a helmet or bulky RPE in a tight place – or the effects might be more subtle.

As well as reducing sound levels, many forms of hearing protection distort the sound that does get through. They tend to remove the higher frequencies, which are often important in understanding speech for example, and allow more of the masking lower frequencies to pass through. If two employees need to talk about their job, what do they do? Turn the noise source off? Move to a quieter place? Shout? Or remove their hearing protection? If communication is an important part of the job, then careful selection of suitable hearing protection can make a big difference.

Many other examples spring to mind. Higher performance negative pressure RPE tends to have a higher breathing resistance – which might be critical in heavy physical work; the memory of a poorly designed fall-arrest harness that pulled upwards when I reached up still brings tears to the eyes; and, on a more serious note, someone’s stab vest got in the way and was removed before a police raid, with fatal consequences.

Working together

Among the employers’ obligations laid down by the PPE Use Directive was the instruction that, “where the presence of more than one risk makes it necessary for a worker to wear simultaneously more than one item of PPE, such equipment must be compatible and continue to be effective against the risk or risks in question”.

There are many common examples of where different forms of PPE are not compatible and either impair performance, provoke discomfort or make it harder to do the job: the arms of safety glasses being pushed uncomfortably against the side of the head by hearing defenders, hearing protection impaired by a broken seal, or the glasses misting up when worn with RPE. Again, the ‘fix’ is often not to wear one (or both) correctly – or leave one off completely.

Do you believe?

One of the challenges for employers is to get employees to recognise the hazard the PPE is intended to protect against. Even with recognised hazards such as asbestos, some workers will tell of an uncle who worked with asbestos for years with no apparent ill effect. Workers will ‘take the risk’ of not wearing a fall-arrest harness if it is going to take too long to fetch it and put it on before the quick job. Education and understanding of the risks will be much more effective than the big stick.

When it comes to PPE, ergonomics is important

It is important to recognise that this is not just a comfort issue. If personal protection equipment does not fit properly, gets in the way with work or with other PPE or is seen as just too much hassle for the perceived risk, then it will either not be not worn correctly or not worn at all. Are you putting the health and safety of your workforce at risk by not considering more than just the technical performance requirements when you select PPE?

Further guidance on PPE can be found in INDG174 A short guide to the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 from the Health and Safety Executive.

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