Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 18: Personal protective equipment (PPE)
When workers complain about dangerous materials and chemicals, the boss may tell them, "Wear these gloves. They will protect you." When personal protective equipment (PPE) is part of a system of preventative measures, it can help protect workers from getting sick or injured from work. But PPE should never be the first or main form of protection. The general rule, “Change the workplace, not the worker,” puts the responsibility on the employer, where it belongs, and usually provides more and better protection. For example, replace a dangerous chemical with a safer one, enclose a machine to limit noise or vibration, or improve ventilation in the factory. It can also cost less over time for management to eliminate dangers than to provide protective equipment.
PPE may provide extra protection for an individual worker, but it should not be a substitute for changes that protect all workers.
One size does not fit all
Personal protective equipment is "personal." To protect you, PPE has to:
- fit you correctly and be tested for fit.
- be different for women and for men (their bodies are different).
- be clean if it is PPE you reuse, or new if it is PPE you use only one time.
- be in good condition, with no holes, cracks, or ripped in any way.
- be the right kind for the danger you face.
- be replaced regularly and at any time it no longer works.
- be used as a last resort after other, safer, controls are in place.
PPE must also be comfortable enough to use all the time. Gloves that make it difficult to move your fingers, masks that are hot, glasses that are scratched or fog up — these may make it harder to work, make you work slower, and, if not well-chosen for the job, create problems such as heat stress and heart strain.
Do not let these difficulties lead you to work without the equipment you need to stay healthy. Instead of listening to the boss blame you for not wanting to protect yourself, organize to get the boss to provide better PPE, adjust piecework rates, or slow the speed of the line if necessary. Even if you feel you are strong or tough enough to work without PPE, it is better to protect your health than to risk it.
Finally, do not let PPE make you think you are protected when you are not. Wearing PPE does not mean you are safe. The only way to make sure you are protected is to fight for safer chemicals, safer conditions, and safer production schedules for everyone in your workplace.