What Is PPE? Types & Importance

May 3, 2021

What is PPE?

PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment, which refers to protective garments and safety equipment designed for workers to avoid occupational hazards. Possible hazards may include exposure to chemical, biological, electrical, physical, radiological, and other types of danger. Essentially, PPE is an umbrella term for a diverse set of apparel including head protective gear, safety eye goggles, face masks, respirators, isolation gowns, body-covering garments, and shoe covers. In any occupational setting, a ‘Safety and Health Control’ hierarchy system is employed to minimize hazard exposure and work in the interest of their worker’s safety. When workplace practices, administrative and engineering protocols are insufficient to provide them a safe environment, PPE is enforced. Organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard for PPE was determined through a consensus to promote safe working practices. Furthermore, to keep its guidelines up-to-date, OSHA periodically re-evaluates its performance by taking into account employees’ comfort, latest technological advancement, and current world trends.

What are the 6 types of PPE?

So, we know what PPE stands for, now let us go through the various types of PPE. This classification depends on what body part it protects and the type of workplace setting. As an example, a healthcare unit will opt for isolation gowns for body protection while construction sites usually go for neon-labeled safety vests. The department or employers responsible for enforcing PPE regulations must firstly assess potential hazards and then equip workers with proper PPE selection. The following is a detailed description of the different types of PPE starting from the head and moving towards the feet [1].
  • Head-protective gear: Hard hats or caps are designed to withstand mechanical hazards in high-risk settings. The regulations are outlined under the ANSI/ISEA Z89.1- 2014 standard by OSHA covering everything from PPE performance to wearer’s comfort when donning. The industrial headgears are further categorized based on risk exposure and the employer’s specific occupation.
  • Safety eye goggles: Manufacturing industries, laboratory workers, healthcare workers, and construction employees to name a few, are strictly required to adhere to eye protection protocols. Under the ANSI-ISEA Z87.1 – 2010 standard the device’s quality is checked before distributing it to the employers.
  • Face masks: Another equipment that protects the wearer from inhaling hazardous particles or infectious pathogens. These face masks can range from simple surgical masks engineered with nonwoven polypropylene fabric, or robust cartridge respirators that filter solid particulate matter. These are further differentiated based on the type of workplace including,
    • Surgical face masks: The simplest face protection used in workplaces with minimal hazard exposure. It is designed with single or multilayered polypropylene.
    • N-series respirators: These cannot filter out oil and provide inadequate protection from solid or liquid aerosols containing oil particles. They are primarily used in healthcare settings and significantly reduce exposure from transmissible infections like TB, coronavirus, and influenza.
    • R-series: These are resistant to oil and are prioritized in industrial workplaces. However, it must be disposed of within 8 hours of continuous use, neither practical nor economically feasible. Hence, is the least common among other respirators.
    • P-series: They are completely oil-proof and provide protection from hazardous particulates for up to 30 days, considering that there is no physical damage to the respirator.
    • Cartridge respirators: These are robust industrial-grade respirators designed with an additional carbon filter to absorb or adsorb chemical and physical particles. It is recommended in industries exposed to chemicals like in laboratories, organic vapors from the fertilizer industry, or residual airborne particles produced in manufacturing industries.
  • Noise protecting gear: Ear mufflers or earplugs are essential industrial equipment to reduce noise-related occupational injury. According to OSHA, if noise exposure exceeds more than 85 decibels throughout their working hours, employees must ensure appropriate PPE training to prevent workplace-associated hearing loss.
  • Body protection: This is a broad category for various body-protecting garments including safety vests, HAZMAT suits with a separate breathing apparatus, arc flash suits, scrubs, and apron gowns.
  • Shoe covers: We need feet to walk around everywhere and carry out our daily tasks. Therefore, shoe covers serve a critical function in preventing contamination or bodily injuries. There are different types for different applications, ranging from hard-toed shoes to minimize foot injuries or medical covers made from blue polypropylene fabric.

Why is PPE important?

In day-to-day activities, workplaces are frequently exposed to physical, chemical, and accidental hazards. Therefore, NIOSH implemented a ‘hierarchy of hazard control’ to eradicate workplace dangers. This hierarchy system consists of elimination, substitution, engineering, administration, and PPE controls from most effective to least effective measures, respectively. It shows how PPE must not be the only hazard control applied and should only be considered when other measures fail to minimize occupation hazards [2]. In a practical world, the top-tier controls are difficult to be implemented. On the other hand, engineering protocols can be administered to reduce the source of exposure, for example, the installation of exhaust ventilation to remove airborne particles. However, in many cases, PPE may be the only effective control to protect workers. It is not designed to remove exposure rather it prevents it from coming in contact with the employees. Non-use of PPEs can significantly expose a worker to safety and health hazards that have terrible clinical consequences. As a result, the industry may lose manpower and suffer financial losses due to low production costs, substantial health insurance claims, or even lawsuits if they fail to comply with the PPE standards as outlined by OSHA. PPE is an essential component in a healthcare system. It is part of the system’s protocol for healthcare workers including hospital staff to follow proper guidelines for the safety of both health workers and patients. Hospitals are breeding places for several contagious pathogens and air-borne diseases therefore, strict administrative and engineering controls must be employed to reduce risk exposure. However, there is only so much it can do especially in an environment that is constantly exposed to infectious diseases. As a result, full-body PPE like isolation gowns and polypropylene filter masks are essential during patient care. Its degree of protection depending upon the clinical environment and operating procedures that are to be conducted.

PPE and COVID-19

We know how the recent pandemic wreaked havoc on the global healthcare infrastructure, causing significant deaths. Amidst this deadly situation, the World Health Organization (WHO) enforced stringent guidelines regarding PPE wear. Throughout the world, hospitals had to have a steady supply of PPE and even the public was to wear face masks. With these measures, several countries were able to flatten the COVID-19 curve for example New Zealand. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), when interacting with a known COVID-19 patient a healthcare worker must wear N-95 or any P-series respirator. At times of PPE shortages, disposable surgical masks or repurposed respirators can also be used. Alternatively, a face shield is an additional PPE preferred during patient care since it reduces the chances of mask contamination. For caregivers looking after an elderly with a high risk of coronavirus exposure, isolation gowns and surgical masks both engineered with a polypropylene filter should be used. Additionally, face shields and eye goggles can also be used if the caretaker is suspected of COVID-19.

What are the PPE requirements and how do we go about choosing it?

According to OSHA guidelines it has been stated that “the protective equipment, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), used to comply with this part, shall be provided by the employer at no cost to the employees.” What this means is, any apparel that is not required outside the workplace must be compensated by the organization responsible. However, everyday clothing and hard boots do not require purchase from the employer since they are utilized outside their occupation. The employers must conduct a thorough hazard analysis at their workplace and then familiarize themselves with the OSHA guidelines before distributing PPE to the employees. The following covers important regulations enforced at a basic workplace along with a brief description as to what it entails. At the OSHA website for occupational health safety, 29 CFR is a collection of regulations with a subcategory Section 1910 that covers information for the General Industry (29 CFR- 1910) [3].
  • Subpart G- Occupational Health and Environmental control
    • Section 1910.94: includes a proper ventilation system in a workplace that deals with scraping products increasing the risk of inhaling solid particulate.
    • Section 1910.95 includes occupational noise exposure and associated PPE to reduce the risk of hearing loss.
  • Subpart H- Hazardous materials
  • Section 1910.120: Includes protocol for managing hazardous waste material and appropriate response in emergencies.
  • Subpart I- Personal Protective Equipment
  • Section 1910.132: includes general PPE requirements and through which manufacturer should it be acquired.
  • Section 1910.133: includes eye and face protection protocols.
  • Section 1910.134: includes different respirators depending on the type of workplace.
  • Section 1910.135: includes head-protective gear and its method of application.
  • Section 1910.136: includes foot protection.
  • Section 1910.137: includes electric protective garments and additional tools that may help when handling a high-risk voltage situation.
  • Section 1910.138: includes hand protection.
  • Section 1910.140: includes apparel and equipment necessary for fall protection.
To increase PPE’s efficacy, it is important to provide comfort to the wearer. This improves PPE compliance and employee will be less reluctant to remove the apparel. Ease of use means PPE fabrics must be breathable, fit according to the wearer, and permeable to air to allow sweat evaporation. On the other hand, OSHA advises against the re-use of PPE unless it is labeled as re-usable. Re-using or sharing PPE garments can increase the transmission of contagion from one person to another, while re-usable PPE supply should only be re-used after proper decontamination procedures have been conducted. Details on the decontamination technique are already specified by the manufacturer. At times of PPE shortages, CDC advises the implementation of the ‘crisis strategy plan’ which highlights the repurposing of products and prioritizing PPE only under a high-risk situation.

The final takeaway: Personal Protective Equipment is effective

Even though PPE is the last resort in the hierarchy of hazard control, there is consensus on its efficacy in any workplace. The workers may find the use of PPE as a hindrance to their daily activities or even feel confident enough in their work to overlook occupational safety protocols. However, the fact remains that PPE has contributed significantly to minimizing work-related injuries and ultimately improving work operations. Employers should always encourage their employees to follow the proper PPE protocol and must go above and beyond when adhering to these rules because without this preventative measure every worker is at risk.  

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