The amount of risk inherent to any workplace can be reduced with safe work practices, but it’s impossible to eliminate all hazards in some settings. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a broad term used to describe everything from gloves and masks to medical gowns.
However, PPE isn’t just for medical environments. Other types of PPE are essential for preventing hearing loss and other injuries and illnesses in construction or factory settings. PPE required for your workplace setting may even be governed by state law, so it’s essential to create a comprehensive PPE program that protects workers and keeps your company in compliance with the law.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires specific safety equipment for high-risk work environments. These requirements cover everything from hearing protection to welding gloves and may contain very specific items for your organization’s PPE selections.
As a general rule, employers must pay for PPE required by OSHA standards or state labor agencies due to hazardous workplace conditions. Some workers may prefer to purchase and maintain their own required PPE, but this PPE must be maintained in line with OSHA standards. Workers may also provide their own PPE that goes above and beyond what is required by OSHA.
Employers can ask independent contractors to provide and maintain their own PPE, but both parties should agree on this in writing ahead of time. Either way, employers must ensure that their definition of an independent contractor is consistent with federal guidelines.
Since employers are required to protect their employees from known hazards, there may be situations where PPE is expected despite not being spelled out in specific OSHA standards that employers usually follow. For example, a workplace that rarely has any hazards might suddenly need PPE if an employee needs to use a strong cleaning chemical on old office equipment. Even in these one-time cases, employers are expected to provide PPE.
Respiratory protection comes in a wide variety of styles and levels of protection. Although some workplaces require industrial-grade, fully sealed face masks or helmets, most only require N95 masks at most. In some cases, surgical 3-ply masks can provide basic protection from some contaminants.
Surgical 3-ply masks were originally designed for preventing contamination caused by the wearer, especially if the wearer sneezed or coughed. However, they may help protect workplaces with occasional airborne liquids and in emergencies where more advanced masks are not available.
N95 NIOSH respirator masks filter out 95% of particles 0.3 microns and larger. They are tight-fitting and require the user to check the fit every time they put one on. They offer a high level of respiratory protection and are the standard required for U.S. healthcare settings, but the FDA also has extended approval to some KN95 masks in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Technically, KN95 is a Chinese mask certification level and does not meet all the same standards as N95. However, you can still use KN95 masks in most workplaces as long as N95 NIOSH isn’t the only legally permitted respirator type. Since KN95 masks still block 95% of particles 0.3 microns and larger and provide a tight seal, they’re good for environments where employers need to protect employees from large airborne particulate matter and pathogens.
Eye and Face Protection
Besides mouth and nose coverage, many work environments need eye and face protection. Eyes are vulnerable both to pathogens and physical injury, so the exact eye protection required may vary.
Workers who may be exposed to flying metal or wood parts, for example, must have safety glasses rated for high-impact resistance. However, for workers in chemical labs who may be exposed to liquids and chemicals, the requirements for goggles are different.
Goggles are common for chemical labs, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, they also became more widespread among general medical environments. This was partly due to shortages in full-body protection for nurses and doctors working with COVID-19 patients. However, goggles may also benefit other situations where the exact route of transmission of a pathogen is unknown.
Plastic face shields allow breathability while helping prevent direct content with airborne droplets containing viruses and bacteria. They also help improve the reusability of N95 respirators, which may be in short supply during pandemics and endemic flu outbreaks. Since they do not fully protect the user from airborne particles, they should still be used with a respirator or a surgical mask at a minimum.
Construction, electrical, and chemical work all require additional types of gloves above and beyond standard medical-grade gloves. However, most work environments use standard nitrile gloves to provide suitable protection from pathogens and basic cleaning agents.
Vinyl gloves are suitable for low-risk environments, but they are not as durable as nitrile and nitrile blend gloves. Nitrile is better for medical environments and exposure to basic cleaning chemicals and other contaminants.
Latex gloves have been a common option for decades, but since latex allergies can occur, workplaces should encourage nitrile glove use as much as possible. Nitrile gloves have improved significantly in their elasticity, so they are now just as comfortable and easy to use as latex.
Nitrile gloves may also be helpful in school environments where teachers, nurses, or custodial staff occasionally encounter bodily fluids. Since basic first aid is an established duty for teachers in most states, schools may be obligated to keep basic PPE on hand to minimize exposure to pathogens.
Full-body protection is rarely a concern outside of heavy industry, firefighting, and medical industries. However, the laws and standards regarding this protection are usually highly detailed to protect workers as much as possible.
Medical environments have the most stringent regulations and best practices for maintaining safety. The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) has 4 basic medical gown levels, ranging from light-duty medical gowns to impermeable surgical gowns. These gowns require extensive testing to ensure they hold up under general wear and tear.
Light-duty medical gowns, such as level 1 and 2 gowns, are appropriate for a variety of low-risk medical settings. However, they provide little protection in non-medical environments that do not have the same concerns about exposure to minute amounts of medical products and fluids.
Above and Beyond Basic PPE
Cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer are not considered PPE and therefore are not legally required in many of the same situations masks and gloves are required in. However, employers are still generally obligated to protect their employees from known hazards. In many cases, cleaning wipes or other disinfectants may help employers maintain a safe and healthy workplace.
This need becomes especially urgent in workplaces with high numbers of clients, vendors, or customers that visit regularly. Your state laws may even require regular cleaning or sanitation on certain surfaces, which is much easier to accomplish with wipes instead of soap and water.
Providing cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer may help boost employee morale and prevent lost work time because of illnesses. Working with a bulk supplier of hand sanitizer and wipes can help you secure these vital supplies at the lowest price possible while maintaining a constant supply.
When Should Employees Use PPE?
Best practices for employees to use PPE are primarily governed by OSHA and state regulations, but generally, any time an employee is in the same space as potentially hazardous equipment, fluids, particulates, or gasses, they require PPE. If an employee is directly interacting with a potential pathogen or contaminant, that specific employee may need heavier PPE.
For example, a surgeon needs level 4 medical gowns if the procedure requires inserting hands inside the patient’s body cavity. However, other nurses and attendants in the room may only require level 3 medical gowns because they are at lower risk of coming into direct contact with the patient’s blood or other fluids.
In some cases, visitors to a sensitive or dangerous environment should also wear PPE. This includes laboratories or hospital wards where contamination from outside visitors is a potential hazard.
Gloves are advisable for any situation involving direct contact, especially sustained contact, with an individual who may be sick or injured. However, wearing gloves also helps protect the other person from anything on the employee’s hands. Because of this, wearing gloves is wise for even brief contact with someone when hand sanitizer or soap is not available.
Sourcing the Right Equipment
Preventing injuries and illnesses requires a multi-faceted approach to evaluating risks in your workplace. The laws and best practices governing each work environment are complex, and you may need to re-evaluate based on requests and feedback from staff.
You may also find that requiring staff to wear PPE in certain situations, such as when coming into close contact with children who may be ill, is essential to maintaining a safe work environment. Keeping a supply of basic PPE on hard allows you to be prepared for any contingency.
ICU Production is proud to distribute high-quality, fully tested PPE that’s ready for use in medical and other environments. We work hard to maintain a steady source of gloves, gowns, masks, face shields, sanitizing wipes, and other essentials for a wide variety of work environments. We’re happy to partner with hospitals, schools, laboratories, and others who need protection for valued employees, patients, and visitors.