The Right Stuff: The Importance of Properly Fitting PPE

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) keeps workers and job sites safe from hazardous conditions. However, choosing improperly fitting or the wrong form of PPE can have dire consequences. Fortunately, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can help ensure proper selection and fit.
“Struck-by” hazards are one of the top four causes of all occupational injuries in the construction industry, and OSHA has stringent rules about wearing head protection. As a result, it is important to understand how to select the proper fitting and appropriate equipment.

The most common form of head protection is a hard hat. A majority of the hard hats on the market come in multiple sizes and have adjustable headbands. According to OSHA, a proper fit should allow sufficient clearance between the shell and the suspension system for ventilation and distribution of an impact. The hat should not bind, slip, fall off or irritate the skin.

OSHA also requires the use of fall ­protection anytime a worker could potentially fall 6 feet or more. To ensure a proper fit of a fall-protection system, the harness should slide over the shoulders, and the D-ring should line up with the middle of the back. It should never be off-center, too low or too high. Shoulder straps should always be vertical and evenly spaced on the torso. When the worker stands up straight, there should be no slack. The harness should be snug but still allow for full mobility.

For hand protection, there is no one-size-fits-all glove solution. Men and women have different requirements for gloves and hand protection sizes. Ensuring a glove fits properly is as easy as grabbing a tape measure and measuring around the hand across the palm, excluding the thumb.

Gloves that are too big can be loose around on the hands and may become a hazard by getting caught in machinery. If too small, they can limit mobility and increase the likelihood an employee will take them off.

Although safety glasses are not always the best form of protection, they can neutralize some of the most commonly encountered hazards. After identifying the right pair of safety glasses, it is important they fit properly. Safety glasses should rest firmly on top of the nose and close to but not against the face. The nose piece should not slide down the face due to sweat or moisture. Experts suggest safety glasses have a three-point fit, meaning the frame should touch the face in three places, at the nose and behind each ear.

Hearing protection devices (HPDs) should always be selected based on the fit and noise environment. If too little protection is provided, it does no good at all. Conversely too much protection can interfere with communication and create isolation from the work environment.

There are three commonly used types of ear plugs: formable insert, premolded and custom-molded. Formable insert plugs are one of the most popular HPDs. They are comprised of expandable, slow-recovery foam. They offer great protection and are very comfortable.

Premolded ear plugs are usually made out of molded soft plastic designed to fit the ear. They are fairly easy to put in, and they are reusable. Unfortunately, sizing options on these HPDs often are limited. As a result, they can come loose while wearing them and require periodic readjusting.

Custom-molded plugs are made for each user. Workers can get an impression of their ear-canal using a quick-curing material. Often, an ear-nose-throat doctor performs this process. These products will provide tremendous protection and are typically comfortable. However, they can be expensive.

Earmuffs fit around the outer ear and against the head. To protect from noise, they must fully enclose and create a seal around the ears. Earmuffs are easy to use and fit well. Unfortunately, they are often difficult to use with hard hats, safety glasses, long hair and beards.

When respiratory protection is needed, it is imperative to have the appropriate PPE for the environment and the proper fit. Once the appropriate respiratory protection is in place, it needs to be maintained and inspected. According to OSHA, all respirators that rely on a mask-to-face seal need to be checked annually with either qualitative or quantitative methods to determine whether the mask provides an acceptable fit to a wearer.

OSHA’s fit test guidelines indicate, “The relative workplace exposure level determines what constitutes an acceptable fit and which fit test procedure is required. For negative pressure air purifying respirators, users may rely on either a qualitative or a quantitative fit test procedure for exposure levels less than 10 times the occupational exposure limit. Exposure levels greater than 10 times the occupational exposure limit must utilize a quantitative fit test procedure for these respirators. Fit testing of tight-fitting atmosphere-supplying respirators and tight-fitting powered air-purifying respirators shall be accomplished by performing quantitative or qualitative fit testing in the negative pressure mode.”

For more information, visit osha.gov.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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