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Nearly all of the safety professionals in a recent survey said that workers in their organizations had at some point failed to wear the necessary safety equipment while on the job.
Ninety-eight percent of respondents who attended the recent American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) show in Baltimore answered "yes" when asked if they had observed workers not wearing safety equipment when they should have been, according to the survey conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional.
To make matters worse, 30 percent of these respondents said this had happened on numerous occasions. Given this, it's not surprising that worker compliance with personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols was cited as the top workplace safety issue by all survey respondents.
These findings are in keeping with results from surveys of safety professionals, conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional at the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress in 2008, 2007 and 2006. Those surveys also found high levels of noncompliance with PPE protocols -- 89 percent in 2008, 87 percent in 2007 and 85 percent in 2006.
"Increasingly high noncompliance with PPE protocols is an alarming trend and a serious threat to worker health and safety," says Gina Tsiropoulos, manufacturing segment marketing manager for Kimberly-Clark Professional. "Whether this is a result of economic conditions, a flawed approach to safety programs, younger workers who are more inclined to take greater risks, or some other reason, it's essential that workers wear PPE when it is required. PPE protects workers against injury, but it will not work if workers fail to use it and use it properly."
It's no wonder then that three-quarters of respondents chose workplace accidents and injuries in response to the question: "What is most likely to keep you up at night?" Potential exposure because of noncompliance with PPE protocols was second, at 13 percent, while fear of a global pandemic and its impact on the workforce was a distant third, cited by only 8 percent of respondents.
Most Challenging PPE
When it comes to compliance with PPE use protocols, eye protection was found to be the "most challenging" PPE category, according to 42 percent of respondents, a disturbing though not unexpected finding considering that nearly three out of five workers who experienced eye injuries were found not to be wearing eye protection at the time of the accident or were wearing the wrong kind of eye protection for the job.1 Add to this the facts that about 2,000 U.S. workers each day have a job-related eye injury that requires medical treatment2 and that thousands are blinded each year from work-related eye injuries that could have been prevented3 and the magnitude of the problem becomes clear.
The next highest category for noncompliance was hearing protection, also disturbing since occupational noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable when proper preventative measures are implemented. It was followed by gloves and head protection.
While the reasons for PPE noncompliance were varied, the biggest complaint was that it was "uncomfortable," selected by 40 percent of respondents, followed by:
- Too hot
- Not available near the work task
- Poor fit
When asked what they had done or intended to do to improve compliance levels, these safety professionals' top choice was to improve existing education and training programs. This was followed by:
- Increased monitoring of employees
- Purchasing more comfortable PPE
- Tying compliance to individual performance evaluations
- Purchasing more stylish PPE
- Developing incentive programs to encourage greater PPE compliance
How can Suppliers Help?
The issue of PPE comfort came to the forefront again when safety professionals were asked what suppliers could do to improve their offerings. The number one selection was to "provide more comfortable PPE," followed by:
- Providing more instruction on the proper use of PPE
- Reducing prices
- Providing greater size selection
- Offering more stylish PPE
PPE of the Future
When safety professionals were asked about their visions for the future of PPE, fit, comfort and style took precedence. Forty-two percent of respondents said they would like to see PPE that automatically adjusts to fit different body types, hands, heads, faces, etc. Next was PPE with customizable style and design options, so that workers could select PPE based on their own individual tastes and safety requirements (32 percent). This was followed by PPE designed with integrated climate-control features, providing cooling or warmth as needed (15 percent).
The impact of customization and style on PPE compliance was further underscored by the response to another question. When asked if customizable or individualized style and design options would help increase PPE compliance, 87 percent of respondents said that it would.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
2. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
3. U.S. Department of Labor