Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last line of defense against hazards, and it has the potential to prevent injuries and save lives. But safety glasses can’t work when they're perched on an employee’s forehead; a hard hat is useless if left sitting on the breakroom table; and what is the point of safety gloves if they’re left in your back pocket? PPE can only do its job when workers use it properly.
PPE, especially respirators in health care settings, is a top concern amid the current COVID-19 pandemic. But because of its perpetual importance to the health and safety of employees, PPE compliance should be a priority for all safety managers, every day. With so much at stake, you might think that your workforce would easily be convinced to wear their equipment properly all of the time. But the fact of the matter is that safe behaviors can sometimes be difficult to instill in employees, even when workers understand the severity of the hazards that these behaviors (including PPE use) are meant to guard against.
A 2020 survey conducted by the EHS Daily Advisor found that 72% of respondents had witnessed an employee in their workplace improperly wearing (or simply not wearing) their PPE or other safety equipment set out by industry or regulatory standards. The same survey found that 58% of respondents felt that while they generally wear their PPE, employees sometimes need to be reminded of its value to their health and safety, and 5% said that some employees at their organizations flat out refuse to wear their PPE, complaining that it gets in the way of the work they are doing.
Why Is Noncompliance an Issue?
There are several key reasons why workers may not comply with proper PPE usage and policies.
The importance of PPE isn’t clearly communicated or understood. Conduct regular training on your organization’s PPE policies as well as instruction on proper usage (including what not to do with equipment). It’s a good idea to conduct regular refresher training as well.
It’s uncomfortable and/or inconvenient. Make PPE readily available for employees and offer a variety of sizes and options so that workers feel they can do their jobs safely and efficiently while wearing the equipment. Remember that in many cases, PPE isn’t one-size-fits all for both male and female employees. When applicable, conduct fit testing!
They feel they have no say regarding the PPE they wear. Involve employees in your PPE program, and listen to their feedback. Workers will support initiatives that they have helped to create.
Your leadership and/or safety culture doesn’t take PPE seriously. Leaders set the tone—if the CEO goes out on the shop floor or to the jobsite and refuses to wear his hard hat or safety glasses, what message does it send to employees?
In order to overcome some of these problems at the higher levels of your organization, PPE education and discussions may be required for those who don’t even wear it (e.g., your executive team). If upper management needs a financial incentive to support PPE initiatives, remind them that if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finds your company to be in violation of any applicable PPE standards, it could result in fines ranging from $13,494 to $134,937, not to mention other costs (such as lost productivity) that occur when an incident or accident occurs.
Become a PPE Champion in 10 Steps
Here are 10 proactive steps you can take right away to encourage PPE compliance among employees.
Establish policies requiring the use of necessary PPE, provide training on them, and consistently enforce them. Ensure that all employees are aware of the rules and the consequences of noncompliance (beyond the immediate consequence of potential injury or illness).
Discuss PPE when appropriate during safety meetings and toolbox talks. Identify job-related hazards and explain how specific PPE is designed to protect against those hazards.
Ask for honest employee feedback concerning PPE. Listen to workers’ complaints and reasons for noncompliance and start a discussion of how these issues can be effectively addressed.
Post appropriate signage in each work area that indicates exactly what PPE is required.
Train your supervisors to ensure that they are monitoring PPE use daily. They should check for compliance among all of their employees and not overlook noncompliance—by any employee for any reason. Supervisors must be empowered to remind everyone (even those who outrank them) to use their PPE properly without fear of reprisal.
Provide statistics and/or descriptions of accidents that have occurred in your workplace or your industry that could have been prevented if the worker had been properly wearing required PPE. Some employees will respond to this approach; others may not, thinking it won’t happen to them.
For those employees who may not be moved by the data, ask them to think of their personal reasons for wearing PPE. These might include getting home safe and sound to their families, avoiding disability or disfigurement, or simply because it’s the smart thing to do.
Storytelling is a great tool for safety managers. Depending on your audience, use examples (real or fictional) of PPE in action in a way that will engage your workforce. Point out that professional athletes wear PPE. Soldiers, doctors, and explorers all wear PPE. Batman wears PPE. Yes, PPE compliance is serious, but if your employees have some fun in training, maybe it will make a bigger impression—and next time, they’ll remember to put on the equipment.
Make the point that PPE is analogous with fitness and healthy lifestyles. Employees exercise, eat right, and schedule medical checkups for their health. Shouldn’t they wear PPE for the sake of their health as well?
And, finally, use progressive discipline on repeat offenders who do not comply with proper PPE usage. To paraphrase an old adage, the carrot is usually better than the stick—but with chronic violators, you must be prepared to use the stick.
Do everything that you can to champion the use of PPE at your organization, track your corrective and preventive actions, and you’ll be on your way to ensuring a safer workplace.