Art of buying safety equipment

Peter Hollett, a 27-year safety professional, remembers well when buying safety equipment for the workplace meant little more than getting safety gloves for the shop floor personnel.

“Twenty years ago, workers in many firms had to make do with what was provided them. The gloves may or may not be the right size and on occasion may not even be the right type of gloves for the job at hand,” said Hollett, safety manager from Calgary, and a COS Safety Leader of the Year Award recipient.
Today, Hollett said, everything from personal protective equipment (PPE), machinery controls and warning signs need to meet stringent government legislations, industry standards and workplace regulations. This is largely due to enforcement and greater awareness of the value of safety equipment not only to the person using them but the business as a whole, he said. “Even before a worker gets to use a piece of safety equipment, that worker would have undergone training on how to properly use it, why it needs to be used and how to maintain it.”

For many businesses, safety equipment is a major budget consideration. Depending on the type of business, safety equipment may account for seven per cent to nine per cent of the overall operating budget, said Hollett.

It is therefore imperative that companies not mess up the task of buying safety equipment. Failure to purchase the right safety equipment and neglecting to provide workers with the appropriate training may result in numerous unwanted circumstances: on-the-job injuries can result in deaths, costly payout for worker’s compensation, lost time or diminished productivity and harmful media coverage.

However, because purchasing safety equipment has become very expensive, Hollett said, one of the most common pitfalls is the urge to cut corners. “Going for the cheapest deal is likely to end up badly.”

For example, beware of suppliers enticing you with offers of steeply discounted supplies on your initial purchase, according to the safety manager. “You could end up tied to a very costly long-term contract,” Hollett warned.

To avoid being hooked into purchasing over priced equipment of items that are not needed, businesses should consider conducting an audit, according to Tom Krause, co-founder and chairman of the board of Behavioural Science Technology Inc., a safety consultancy firm.

Before even spending a single penny on safety equipment, companies need to carryout a comprehensive audit of its facilities, personnel and practices. “This is necessary to determine what areas and tasks would require what type of safety equipment and what specific safety gear workers in these areas should have,” he said.

Safety managers and safety teams that have knowledge and experience in the work areas are valuable in pinpointing “potential high-risk areas and tasks,” said Krause.

“You need executive buy-in as well on training on how to use the equipment. This way safety education gets ample backing to go the distance,” he said.

Among the items that need to be considered in the audit are:

•    The number of personnel that would need PPE
•    Machinery controls and labels
•    Areas that need warning signs and barriers
•    Emergency response kits and alarms
•    Testing and assessment

Testing and assessing the performance of safety equipment, before purchase and on a regular basis once they are installed, is vital to ensure reliability,” according to Krause.

Hollett also has the following pointers to make sure companies get the most bang for their safety buck:

Don’t go over budget – Calculate the appropriate number of safety equipment you will need throughout the year and stay as close as possible to that number. Take into account wear and tear, lost items, expiry dates and end-of-life dates.

Keep your eye out for bargains – Inquire about special pricing for bulk buyers or repeat customers. Sometimes suppliers also offer to conduct free safety audits.

Don’t be fooled by appearances or low prices – New and shiny equipment can look really attractive and it could be hard to resist bargain prices, but make sure the items you are buying are up to specs.

Keep up to date – Read up on industry journals, trade publications and government notices in print and online. These could be valuable sources for new legislation covering safety equipment, new products and processes.

Establish checks and controls – Keep track of equipment you issue and how often replacements for them are requested by personnel. This can help you determine whether items are being stolen or not being used properly. Quickly worn out safety equipment can also be a sign that items being used are not suited for the environment or that work processes need to be changed.

To ensure that equipment are properly used and maintained, users need to be made aware that they have a stake in keeping these items in tiptop condition. Hollett reveals a safety goggle trick he’s known for in the industry.

“I am notorious for handing out Harley Davidson branded safety goggles,” said Hollet. “I do it because the $3-goggles invariably gets misplaced or damaged too quickly by workers. But if you give them Harley goggles it helps build a sense of ownership and they take care of it better.”