PPE is personal before it is protective

A recent study found that many workers aren’t wearing necessary personal protective equipment. Which leaves a question: Why?


Courtesy: Kimberly-Clark ProfessionalSafety is an absolute right and absolute expectation of every worker, and the vast majority of workplaces ascribe to some structured safety program. Whether it is part of a formal Lean safety effort or a continuing emphasis on safety, most manufacturers build safety into the structure of their organization.

The reasons are both altruistic and economic: The safety of workers is protected by law, but it also is a common-sense way to build a loyal workforce. Workers who feel their company cares about their personal safety consider the company a good place to work.

The economic reality of an unsafe workplace is well documented. A single safety-related event on a plant floor can be expensive, and a serious injury can cut into workman's compensation costs and drive a once-profitable business to the brink of disaster.

Still, at the end of the day, worker safety is a personal issue. Yet a recent study indicates that it may be the line workers who must take that personal safety message more to heart.

PPE compliance

A study released this summer by Kimberly-Clark Professional indicates that almost 9 in 10 safety professionals have observed workers not wearing necessary personal protective equipment when it was required. Almost 3 in 10 observed this practice on a continuing basis.

“This high rate of noncompliance with PPE protocols presents a serious threat to worker health and safety,” said Gina Tsiropoulos, manufacturing segment marketing manager for Kimberly-Clark Professional. “While the reasons for noncompliance are varied, the threat to workers is clear-cut. Without the proper use of PPE, they are at risk of serious injury or even death.”

OSHA regulations on the use of PPE are clear, and the standards on PPE, lockout/tagout, and arc flash safety are well documented and continually communicated. Yet injuries and fatalities continue in the workplace.

In 2010, OSHA reported more than 4,500 fatalities in the workplace. That number was virtually unchanged from 2009, but it still means 12 people per day die in workplace-related injuries in the United States.

OSHA enforcement tends to punish employers for unsafe working conditions. Employers who fail to maintain a safe workplace environment have faced some staggering fines:

  • $917,000 in proposed fines for 50 safety violations against a Boston-area manufacturer after an explosion injured four workers in March 2011
  • $1.94 million in proposed fines against an Alabama lumber mill for safety and health violations in a plant that had previously been cited 77 times by OSHA in the past 4 years. The plant management had not instituted lockout/tagout on machinery being cleaned.

OSHA also has cited dozens of manufacturers for various workplace safety violations around the country that resulted in numerous injuries and even fatalities. Fines for those violations are still pending final investigation.

But the first line of defense against an unsafe workplace is the worker, and the Kimberly-Clark Professional study indicates more work is needed to get workers to understand and comply with existing PPE rules—both those covered by OSHA and those covered by company policy.

Getting their attention

Courtesy: Kimberly-Clark Professional“Complacency is the enemy,” said Deanna Thornton, Global Safety Director of Marketing, Kimberly-Clark Professional. “We’ve seen that people are most attentive after someone is injured. Workers get comfortable and pay less attention over time. When this happens, they make choices that are sometimes unsafe—like not wearing PPE. Keeping workers engaged long-term is a challenge that safety managers battle every day.”

Thornton said the choice of PPE is a personal one but is affected by a number of external factors. “Safety programs are more effective when the employees understand the risks and choose to protect themselves,” she said. “Although it is the responsibility of the safety manager to educate workers as well as enforce safety procedures, the ultimate decision every day to make the safe choice lies with the worker.

“Other important factors in encouraging PPE compliance are comfort, fit, and style. Employees want PPE that fits well, is comfortable and also stylish,” she added. “Additionally, PPE with a wider range of options to fit a variety of body types can also drive higher levels of compliance.”

Companies such as Kimberly-Clark and others in the safety equipment industry have tried to respond to the call for style and comfort in safety apparel. Some safety manufacturers have licensing deals with major sports organizations, such as NASCAR and the NFL, that allow team logos or other branded materials to appear on PPE equipment such as gloves and hard hats. Other licenses with major retail brands, such as Harley-Davidson, can make the PPE about form as well as function. And if all of that drives compliance, employers consider it a small cost to pay.

That issue also has caught the attention of safety product manufacturers. “We always start with customer needs in our development process. Additionally, we capture customer feedback throughout development and also test PPE products in real work environments to get constructive feedback on how products actually perform in the workplace,” Thornton said. “For example, we learned that welders wanted auto-darkening filters to be intuitive and they wanted to be able to adjust the controls with their gloves on. Working with welders across the nation, we launched Jackson Safety Truesight ADF, an innovative new product that delivers on this need.”

One of the more surprising aspects of PPE compliance revealed in the study is that it’s not the bulky electrical suits required by arc flash rules or the use of gloves in the plant that is the greatest area of noncompliance. Eye protection was cited as the single most challenging area of noncompliance by workers, despite the fact that almost 60% of all eye injuries occurred when the worker was not wearing proper eye protection.

Comfort is an important component behind noncompliance with PPE rules, according to the Kimberly-Clark Professional study. Workers cited both the physical comfort of the product and that it made them too hot as reasons for not using the PPE, the study found. Yet 69% of the study respondents said the reason behind noncompliance with PPE was that they didn’t think the PPE was necessary for the task.

When safety managers were asked how they intended to improve PPE compliance, 61% said they would improve training and education, and 48% would do more monitoring of employee compliance.

Manufacturing a safety culture

Courtesy: Kimberly-Clark ProfessionalAs a manufacturer of safety products for manufacturing and other industries, Kimberly-Clark must also walk the walk on the subject of safety. “We have a multifaceted approach that includes a culture of safety, comprehensive training, and engineering processes and controls at our manufacturing sites,” said Thornton. “We allow employees to be engaged in the PPE selection process, and we offer a wide range of options.”

The company also recognizes that employee safety is a 24/7 process. A workplace injury can have an economic impact on a family, but an injury to an employee at home can have an equally devastating result. And whether an employee is injured on the job or at home, the manufacturer still loses a worker. That’s why many companies have extended workplace safety training to the home environment.

“We have a corporate-wide campaign called ‘Who’s Counting on You?’ It reminds employees that while working or at an activity outside of work, it’s essential to return home safely for the people who depend on them,” said Thornton. “We also encourage our employees to wear PPE when mowing the lawn or performing other household chores. We are always looking for ways to improve our safety culture, and it starts with employee engagement.”

The best programs and the best equipment will not put protective glasses, gloves, and hearing protection on a worker. The Kimberly-Clark Professional study proves a fundamental issue about PPE: Before it is protective, it is personal.

“We change the conversation so that employees make the choice to protect themselves,” Thornton said. “We move away from enforcement to personal accountability.”

Calculating the true cost of workplace injuries

The issue of workplace injuries and the use of PPE are both personal, human issues. The cost of these injuries can have an equally devastating effect on a business, and an online calculator brings the total costs of these injuries into clear view.

As part of its Safety Pays program, OSHA and The National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. have created an injury cost calculator that takes into account both the direct and indirect costs of a workplace injury.

The NCCI has studied and analyzed data from around the country and plugged its copyrighted data into the OSHA calculator. While a disclaimer on the Safety Pays website notes that the data is only a predictive tool and not an actual calculator for specific cases, it does provide an interesting way to get a general overview of the full cost of a wide range of workplace injuries.

While the actual cost of an injury is often covered by health insurance and workers; compensation insurance, the Safety Pays website adds this note: “Indirect costs are usually uninsured and therefore, unrecoverable. An abbreviated listing of indirect cost drivers includes:

  • Any wages paid to injured workers for absences not covered by workman's compensation
  • The wage costs related to time lost though work stoppage
  • Administrative time spent by supervisors following accidents
  • Employee training and replacement costs
  • Lost productivity related to new employee learning curves and accommodation of injured employees, and
  • Replacement costs of damaged material, machinery, and property.”

Visit the website for the Safety Pays program at http://1.usa.gov/fP2g0Q.

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