Personal protective equipment (PPE) is often worn by employees without regard to its purchase, need or use. However, employers are required to know when and why employees must wear PPE and ensure it is used properly. In certain circumstances, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that the employer purchase the equipment. Before issuing PPE, these questions should be answered: Who must pay? What PPE is needed and why? Can the use of PPE be avoided? What must be done to ensure the employee is wearing the PPE properly?

The question of payment for PPE has been brought to OSHA many times. Over the years, their response has varied. As a result, the OSHA Review Commission sided with the employer in the case where a citation was given for failure to buy PPE. OSHA plans to revise the general PPE standard to clarify purchase responsibility. In the meantime, with the exception of the PPE required for the standards in Table I, the question of payment is better left to labor agreements.

The explanation on the “what” and “why” questions of PPE must be prefaced by a review of the hierarchy of hazard controls. Whenever possible, hazards must be controlled at their source. Employers must first use engineering controls to eliminate a hazard or administrative controls to prevent exposure.

To determine what PPE is needed and why, the hazards must be evaluated. The best time to review the hazards is prior to submitting a bid. This will ensure money is available should the employer be required to pay for the equipment.

Walk-through inspections performed on similar jobs can be helpful in identifying potential hazards. Both physical and health-related hazards must be considered. Examples of physical hazards include falling and moving objects, high or low temperatures, high intensity lighting, rolling objects, electrical connections and sharp edges. Examples of health hazards include overexposure to harmful dusts, chemicals or radiation.

Another helpful reference in the evaluation is the company's injuries and illnesses records. A history of electrical shock, for example, should cause an employer to take a closer look at the gloving policy and hard hat use. Burns and frostbite call for better protective clothing.

In performing an assessment of PPE for electrical hazards, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 70E Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces should be considered. OSHA can use industry consensus standards, such as NFPA 70E, in enforcement. They provide evidence of whether the employer acted reasonably.

Once the hazards are identified, the appropriate PPE can be selected. The hazards found must be analyzed for their affect on the employee. Impact and penetration from falling objects would warrant the need for head protection, and excessive noise mandates hearing protection and so on.

When the PPE is issued, the question of how to ensure it is used properly comes to the forefront. PPE has its limitations, the biggest of which is its dependency on the user. A respirator that does not fit properly or hangs around the neck of the employee provides little or no protection.

Employees must be trained to use PPE. They must know which PPE is needed and when to wear it. Training must also include how to properly put PPE on, adjust it and take it off. A clear understanding of its limitations is critical. Finally they need to know the proper care, storage, maintenance, life and disposal of their PPE.

Certain OSHA standards require the employer to establish a written program to ensure the proper use and effectiveness of the PPE. For example, all employers whose employees must wear respirators are required to have a written respiratory protection program. The program must identify a program administrator and describe compliance. This includes the hazardous atmospheres present, respirators selected, their care, use and training. General industry employers are required to have a number of other written programs such as a hearing conservation program. In addition, they are required to document their overall “hazard assessment” for PPE.

Although contractors may not appear to be held to as many requirements for written PPE programs, it would be wise to document the safety precautions taken. Electrical contractors should review both the general industry standards as well as the construction standards on PPE. Compliance actions required by either of these regulations should be taken and well documented. The OSHA standards can be found on their Web site at www.osha.gov. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.