There are some roles that, by virtue of the activity, environment or the long working hours they entail, can be physically demanding for an individual. If not managed correctly, fatigue and tiredness can quickly set in. This condition increases the risk of human failure, which has proven to be a key contributor to accidents.
The risk of exhaustion can increase if an individual is required to work in an environment where there are hazardous levels of noise, dust or vibration (or any other harmful agent) and the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE) or respiratory protection equipment (RPE) is compulsory.
Other factors such as heat radiating from nearby objects such as pipes or machinery, a lack of air movement and poor ventilation will contribute to an increase in temperature, while high humidity will inhibit natural body cooling.
Work for which a combination of clothing and equipment pieces must be worn can affect balance and body posture, even during functional tasks. Everyday motions such as stepping up, stepping down, turning or passing under objects are not straightforward when movement, visibility and breathing are restricted.
Manufacturing, construction, asbestos removal and firefighting instantly spring to mind as hazardous environments that impose such challenges.
To assist managers in mitigating the risks, these key factors need to be considered when selecting PPE. The assessment must also explore comfort and functionality as well as ensure it provides the correct level of protection. Although the primary concern is protection, comfort has a direct effect on production and quality.
There are different ways in which PPE comfort and fit affect workers:
reduced agility and dexterity
isolation from workplace and other workers.
Excuse or reality? In my experience comfort is the first reason given if someone does not want to wear PPE. It may be a valid grievance but equally it could be an excuse. It is important to establish the facts, otherwise increasing comfort is unlikely to improve the situation.
Freedom of choice. I have seen workers provided with PPE without any consultation. You work on a construction site, so you wear a hard hat and there is only one type of head protection available. However, I have found that giving workers a choice, even a simple one of personalisation such as style or colour, will help to improve buy-in and ownership. A good example is safety glasses, which are now available in a range of frames, tints and colours.
Gender-specific PPE. This issue has had a high profile in recent years because, historically, the size and cut of garments have been designed specifically for men. PPE providers and employers are responding to this positively as the number of women entering traditionally male-dominated fields such as construction and manufacturing grows (See "Unready to wear", IOSH Magazine, November 2018, or bit.ly/2ORLYCI).
When selecting PPE, from head to toe, to minimise the risk of fatigue, there are key considerations for comfort.
Head protection: This may take the form of safety helmets, hard hats or bump caps. Hard hats provide protection if there is a risk from falling objects or electric shock. When selecting a hard hat consider those made from a lightweight composite material and have ample webbing built into the suspension and padding. An adjustable strap too will offer maximum comfort. You should also ensure that it is compatible with other accessories such as face or hearing protection.
Eye/face protection: This includes safety spectacles, goggles, face shields or screens and visors. First establish the hazards that you need to protect against. They could be chemical splashes, dust, projectiles or radiation. You will need to think about the safety rating, whether they can be worn with glasses and whether they are compatible with other PPE. Some will have anti-mist and anti-scratch lenses or shields. Polycarbonate materials are lighter weight and are stronger than glass and plastic. Eye size, bridge size and temple length vary so glasses should be fit-tested correctly.
Respirators (filtering devices): These use filters to remove contaminants from the air breathed in. Modern designs incorporate advanced filter material that achieves low breathing resistance. In addition, types with an integral valve, which close during inhalation and open to allow exhaled air to escape, will reduce the build-up of heat inside the mask. Look out for other comfort features such as sculpted nose panels, which offer better conformity to the nose bridge and facial contours, wider fields of vision and improved compatibility with eyewear. A chin tab makes putting on the respirator and adjusting easier. Employees who wear tight-fitting RPE must be face-fit tested and have a certificate to prove that the equipment they wear during work not only fits them, but also affords them the effective protection for the task.
Gloves: The hazards associated with poorly fitting gloves are often overlooked. Wearing them too loose can result in reduced grip strength and dexterity. If you overwork the hands, it can lead to conditions such as tendonitis. Tight gloves can cause pressure on the hands and increase perspiration. When assessing the correct type of glove be sure to ask what tasks need to be done and how often. What hazards will the worker be exposed to? What tools, equipment, materials or products will need to be used to complete the task? The "one size fits all" approach to gloves does not work when dealing with a physically diverse workforce.
Safety boots: Since many types of safety boots are made from tough materials, they are not always the most forgiving of footwear. When choosing boots consider the nature of the job, how often you will be wearing them and for how long. The industry consensus is to select a boot that is half a size bigger than what you normally wear. This will provide room for your feet to swell and breathe.
Selecting and administrating PPE is a complicated process. When deciding on safety controls it is important to remember that PPE should be used only as a last resort or in combination with other measures. Elimination, substitution or engineering controls should always be prioritised.