Although personal protective equipment (PPE) has been used for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic meant it became a major aspect of everyday life. From wearing a face mask at the grocery store to sanitizing your hands multiple times a day, people have had to adopt a safety-first routine to combat the spread of the virus.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), PPE helps create a barrier that prevents infectious materials or harmful airborne substances from making contact with your mouth, nose, skin, or eyes, reducing the spread of viruses or dangerous biological agents.
However, PPE doesn’t eliminate potential hazards. It’s the last line of defense for employees when no other safety measures can remove the hazard from the workplace. For example, when it’s impossible to eliminate a respiratory virus from the workplace, the next best option is for employees to wear a suitable medical-grade mask and appropriate medical gown that protects against airborne pathogens.
PPE selection and proper education on how it should be used are as important as the equipment itself. For this reason, the CDC and FDA offer advice to the public on how to stay protected, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets national safety standards to help organizations protect their workers.
Besides its use in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, PPE is essential in several industries. Work environments for construction professionals and health care professionals are full of potential hazards. The risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals, infectious diseases, and materials in these settings can be extremely high, so using personal protective equipment is crucial. While personal responsibility is important, businesses must provide an acceptable level of PPE for their employees.
What is PPE?
After having first-hand experience of a global pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021, most people are aware of PPE. Although face shields and masks are now commonplace for protection against COVID-19, it’s important to understand why you must wear PPE at work.
PPE is wearable equipment designed to minimize the wearer’s exposure to hazards and materials that can cause minor to severe workplace injuries and illnesses. PPE provides protection from health hazards caused by direct or indirect contact with chemical, physical, electrical, radiological, mechanical, or other types of potentially infectious agents.
Different Types Of PPE
Although there are industry-specific protective clothing and equipment types, it’s important for people and workers to be familiar with the primary forms of protection and proper PPE use.
Masks and Respirators
Due to an initial shortage in supply of respiratory protective equipment, people began to use different types of face coverings as respiratory protection during the early stages of the 2020 pandemic. However, many of these materials are not regulated or adequately tested, meaning questions could be asked about their efficacy.
N95, some KN95 respirators, and surgical masks are regulated by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and OSHA.
Surgical masks are loose-fitting, disposable face coverings that create a physical barrier over the wearer’s nose and mouth. They are commonly worn in health care settings to minimize the transfer of contaminants and body fluids to the immediate environment. For example, a surgeon wears this form of face protection to prevent hazardous substances, such as oral bacteria, from harming patients. These are often referred to as isolation, medical, or dental masks.
These masks are designed for easy breathability while offering protection from a biological hazard. When worn correctly, they can obstruct certain particle droplets from escaping through speech, coughing, or sneezing. However, they don’t guarantee total protection from germs and contaminants as they can’t block small droplets. The mask should be secured snugly to the face, covering the nose and mouth.
Surgical masks are intended for one-off use. If they have been used or compromised, they should be removed, appropriately discarded, and replaced with a fresh one. Wearers should practice good hand hygiene and infection control by washing their hands before and after handling the mask.
Among face masks, N95 respirators provide some of the highest levels of respiratory protection. An N95 is a breathing apparatus designed for a snug fit around the face. This allows it to filter air efficiently. They are most frequently used in the healthcare industry and were in huge demand throughout the United States at the beginning of the pandemic.
KN95 respirators are designed similarly to N95s and are the primary mask used to combat respiratory workplace hazards in China. Their main advantage over regular surgical masks is that they have a tight fit and use a more efficient filtering system. Although they are designed and manufactured in China, KN95s got emergency use authorization in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Face shields are plastic visors that protect your entire face. They provide high-level protection in certain instances as they cover the mouth, nose, and eyes, preventing viral particles from passing to the wearer. They are used predominantly in health care scenarios and by education professionals because you can see through the visor for nonverbal communication and expression.
Gloves are an important type of hand protection used daily in construction, medical, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries. Different gloves are used to protect the wearer in various conditions. Depending on your environment and work area, particular materials offer the best protection.
Vinyl gloves are effective in protecting against minor hazards such as basic cleaning chemicals. They are often used in low-risk medical settings or the foodservice industry.
Latex gloves were the standard in the medical field for many years but are beginning to be replaced by nitrile gloves due to the prominence of latex allergies.
Nitrile gloves are more flexible than latex gloves. They are used in multiple fields or in any facility where workers may come in contact with chemicals, harmful materials, sharp tools, or bodily fluids.
Hospital gowns are essential in preventing the spread of infections and maintaining a sanitary environment in medical settings. They are designed for specific levels of protection and are graded accordingly.
These are used for standard patient care routines that don’t involve the risk of fluid exposure. They are designed for one-off use and shouldn’t be used in surgery rooms. Hospitals often provide level 1 gowns for visitors.
These gowns are worn in situations where the risk of fluid exposure is low. Level 2 gowns are generally used for standard, low-risk surgical procedures, such as drawing blood. They come in sterile and non-sterile varieties.
Level 3 gowns give the wearer and patient moderate protection from fluids and are used in various surgical scenarios, including handling emergency trauma cases.
Level 4 gowns are effective in protecting people from bodily fluids or bloodborne pathogens. They offer the highest level of protection, so they are used for various surgical procedures, including invasive operations.
Other Forms of PPE
There are many different types of PPE, with some designed for specific purposes and industries. Other common types of PPE include:
- Shoes and boots
- Shoe covers
- Hard hats
- Gas masks
- Lab coats
- Earplugs or muffs
- Safety glasses, goggles, or other eye protection
- Hand sanitizer
- Disinfectant wipes
OSHA PPE Levels
OSHA labels PPE as either level A, B, C, or D. These labels help employers comply with PPE regulations and determine what equipment is required for their workers.
Level A Protection
This equipment is used when the highest level of skin, respiratory, and eye protection is needed.
Level B Protection
Level B equipment is needed when the highest level of respiratory protection but less skin safeguarding is required.
Level C Protection
This type of equipment is specialized for meeting air-purifying standards in relation to airborne contaminants.
Level D Protection
This equipment is used for protection against basic contamination. An example of Level D equipment is a standard work uniform.
Creating a PPE Management Program
To ensure the safety of the employer, employees, and other visitors to a construction site or work premises, businesses are required to create a PPE management program. Management must pay careful attention to the type of PPE they provide to employees based on the potential hazards in their workplace. The most important steps involved in developing a PPE management program are:
Perform a Hazard Assessment
This involves inspecting the site or workplace for potential hazards, such as exposed wiring, blocked walkways, or fall hazards. All equipment and materials that workers come in contact with should also be examined. Management must interact with employees and observe if there are other dangers or misuse of equipment that could lead to injury.
If dangers or hazards are detected, management should take action to eliminate them.
Choose Appropriate PPE
After gathering information from the initial risk assessment and hazard removal, management must choose the most suitable PPE for their employees. Using guidance from reliable sources like OSHA, NIOSH, CDC, and the World Health Organization (WHO) can help inform their careful selection.
One of the most important aspects of safe PPE use is getting the right fit. Businesses must take employees’ measurements and ensure that all equipment is fitted correctly for safe use.
Besides having well-fitted equipment, workers must know how to use it. Businesses should offer training courses and information guides on what the PPE is for, how and when to wear it, and how to recognize issues with the equipment.
PPE should be examined and monitored consistently, and if problems are detected, maintenance must be carried out. Alternatively, replacement equipment or a new PPE management system should be implemented.
Limitations of PPE
Unfortunately, there are limits to the effectiveness of PPE. While a lab coat can protect you from certain spills and accidents, it won’t hold up against significant amounts of bodily fluid or a chemical leak. As an employer, you must implement additional measures to keep workers safe. Some important considerations regarding PPE limitations are:
- It only protects the wearer or user
- It can be ineffective if it isn’t used or fitted properly
- PPE can restrict the user
- Sometimes workers believe their PPE gives them more protection than it does
Source PPE From a Trusted Supplier
If your business is upgrading its PPE and safety protocols, it’s important that you purchase high-quality equipment from a trusted supplier. ICU Production Inc. is a leading provider of tested and reliable PPE. We offer a range of FDA and CDC-approved PPE, including face masks, respirators, medical gowns, gloves, and hand sanitizers. For more information on our product range, browse our website or contact us today.