Is PPE hurting our employees?

Safety gear might be highly visible, but it has not significantly reduced injuries

Is PPE hurting our employees?

Think about your most recent injury reviews. How often have you heard the statement from the injured employee or their supervisor: “I had my PPE on” therefore “I was working safely.”

The quest to get our employees to wear PPE seems to have diverted the attention away from the more important message of staying out of the line of fire.

Back when safety departments were trying to get traction with our workforces, a common question was whether the employees were being compliant versus committed. The intent was to engage that workforce to make safe decisions and avoid putting themselves in the line of fire, rather than just go through the motions because the safety rules said so. It can be argued that this effort has stalled at wearing PPE. PPE has become prevalent across industries and workplaces. It is more common to see hi-visibility clothing and safety glasses today than it has ever been. This is a success for the last line of defence at keeping our people healthy and injury free.

Somehow though we skipped to that last line. Wearing PPE is easy to spot, and it is tangible, which helps to satisfy corporate managements teams that require a visual medium for success and effort.

However, it has not helped in making significant reductions in injuries within the workforce. We have the most stringent regulations, the best access to third party training, arguably the largest safety professional focused workforce and yet we are still at best, at par with injuries and fatalities.

In creating a focus on having external programs to rely on for our safety programs, we have effectively eliminated the sense of community within an organization and by association eliminated that sense of caring that is vital to engaging the hearts and minds of a workforce to promote safe decisions.

This would explain why there is such strong focus on PPE, and why PPE is hurting our workforce. Because in the absence of engagement and the sense of belonging, PPE becomes the focus points of safety.

Take this case study for example. A field service technician needed to remove a bolt from the equipment he was working on. Although they carry tools in their work vehicles, often they must walk to the repair with the tools they think they will need. This can vary in distance based on location of the equipment and the available parking area, but, on average it’s about 100 feet.

In this case, the technicians did not have the right set of pliers to remove the nut from the bolt; the pliers on hand were for a different function and the handles tapered at the end. They were used nonetheless and when there was a slip off the nut, those tapered handles squeezed together and caught the hand in a pinch. The resulting injury was a cut on the hand and a tetanus shot.

During the injury review, the statement from the technician and the supervisor was that this was an accident and that the employee was working safely because he had all the required PPE. The review identified that it was the wrong tool and an awkward stance that caused the slip; the gloves served as the last line of defence and minimized the severity.

The technician “sort of” knew that these two items were hazards but his focus was on the PPE that the supervisor insisted was vital.

How do we resolve this issue? We need to foster a sense of caring and community. If we share a common goal and that common goal is each person’s well-being, then making different safer decisions becomes achievable. PPE would then default to be a part of a program, not it’s focus.  If we can get together as a group across geographical lines, industries and market value then we can impose our will on suppliers to provide more than PPE; we can ask for a show of caring with that PPE. I don’t have a one answer that solves this, but I do know that from the people I have worked with and those I have seen at conferences, we have the collective brain power and passion to take that necessary next step together.

The second is within each of our organizations. We must convince our management teams to be leadership teams. I recently spent a week in training with some of our road technicians; they are our biggest exposure for injuries and yet we spend the least amount of time with them. In one week of sharing that time with them, we developed a kinship of caring. Quite simply they believed because I was willing to hear them and be one of them for that short period of time.

It cost me a log jam in my other duties, and time will tell if it will save me time in the future from reduced injuries – at least from those in that class. But I am an optimist and believe in the power of a transparent and caring safety community.

The challenge ahead is not to be minimized. We work for businesses, and in business the standard holds true: what is measured is done. This may be a part of what drove the direction to a visual confirmation of safety; the PPE.

Let’s face it, zero only has a value for safety; zero is not a positive number in many places in business so it is hard to sell without some metrics to support it. We need to change our leading indicators to include management and executive involvement. Call them touch points, call them safety observations, call them talking to the front line — the lexicon does not matter if it promotes positive and clear community building.

Include these on the next metrics review and put the focus to a metric that can be measured as increases and key performance indicators instead of the focus only on a goal of zero.

As part of our continuous improvement as a professional member of our organizations, we must look inward and realize that our focus on PPE is in fact hurting our work force.

Lucie Giroux is a safety manager based in Burlington, Ont. She has worked in safety for nearly 15 years. She received her certificate in occupational health and safety from the University of New Brunswick and holds the Canadian Registered Safety Professional designation. Most of her time is spent in the field where workers are exposed to hazards to create that community of care to promote safer decisions.