By John Navroth
(This piece first appeared on safetyXchange, the online community for safety pros.)
Why is personal protective equipment (PPE) important? We all know the answer, right? All together now: “Because it protects workers from injury!” While this may be true, it’s also true that in the real world, safety professionals are still struggling to get this message across—and make it stick. Unfortunately, expressions like “Wear your PPE because it says so in the safety rule book” just don’t hold up as convincing arguments, especially in front of a group of tough customers—like maybe your co-workers for instance. So what does work?
Why Workers Resist Wearing PPE
The failure of workers to wear PPE persists as a leading concern among employers and safety professionals. According to the National Safety Council, PPE is a component in at least two of OSHA’s 2008 top-ten violations: fall protection and respiratory protection.
Also, during the 2006 National Safety Council Congress, Kimberly-Clark Professional conducted a survey among attendees, asking if respondents had ever observed workers failing to wear PPE when they should have. Eighty-seven percent said that they had. The reasons?
- PPE was uncomfortable (according to 62% of respondents);
- PPE wasn’t necessary for the task;
- PPE was too hot; and
- PPE was unattractive looking.
My Show Don’t Tell Method of Getting Workers to Wear their PPE
Ok, so much for the problem. Now you want to know: How do I get my workers to wear their blasted PPE? What I can humbly offer are some suggestions that have yielded fairly good results for me over the years.
You’ll notice that most of these suggestions involve “showing.” It’s my belief that, no matter what message you’re trying to get across about PPE, showing is much more effective than talking.
1. Set an example
There’s nothing more embarrassing to us safety geeks than being accused – or even worse, caught – not “walking our talk”. You must SHOW your peers and co-workers that you aren’t above the rules and regulations by using PPE in your workplace wherever it’s required.
2. Allow no exceptions
There must be zero exceptions. Period. If it is a requirement that PPE be used in a designated work area, then adhere to the policy or the procedure.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ll just be in there for a second” or “I’ve been performing this task without PPE for years”?
Don’t fall victim to this classic recipe for a perfect storm, one that I’m sure you have watched reenacted many times on safety training videos, and hopefully never have experienced firsthand.
Instead, SHOW your workers where to obtain the appropriate PPE and take the time to SHOW them how to don and use it correctly. Explain to them that their contribution and hard work is valued and that remaining injury free is an important part of reaching and maintaining your organization’s goals.
3. Don’t look the other way
The absolute worst thing you can do regarding the proper use of PPE is let someone get away without it when it is required. If you ever witness a violation of use, never ignore it. There is a very well-known poem that still circulates around the safety profession that SHOWS this situation far more effectively than I ever will.
4. Spend the money
There are few quicker returns on investment than PPE. In fact, it can be virtually immediate. OSHA even goes so far as to say there is a $4 return for every dollar spent.
Sure, you may be saving a few bucks with that box of Brand X safety glasses sitting on a bench at the entrance to the shop floor. These types of safety glasses are fine for the casual visitor, but never expect your regular workers to wear them 100% of the time.
Let your workers know you stand behind your message by giving them something unique, something special. Go ahead and spring for that pair of Harley-Davidson® safety glasses, pay for those Kevlar® gloves for sharps and cut protection, offer them hard hats with an ear-muff option. That SHOWS a person that you are looking out for them and are personally invested in their welfare.
5. It doesn’t end with training
Training isn’t the last word on a safety topic. It’s usually only the beginning. The training session remains one of the most effective venues to SHOW workers how important PPE is in the workplace. This is also a good place to SHOW the proper fit and care of PPE, so maybe you won’t be faced later with the aforementioned “too hot” or “too uncomfortable” issues.
You should then monitor the desired effects of your training under actual working conditions long after the sign-off sheets have been passed around.
6. Give me a good reason
In use for many years now, but still worth mentioning, is the “Why I Work Safe” bulletin board. This is simply a place for workers to pin up pictures of their loved ones to SHOW as a reminder every time they walk by to work and go home safe.
Of course I’ve seen the occasional picture of a pet, a car and even a guitar, but they say that love is relative, right? In any case, it serves as a visual reminder and reinforces the message.
7. Don’t let the employee off the hook
In addition to the requirements that employers provide PPE where necessary, OSHA regulations (and Canadian OHS laws) clearly state that the worker also has a part in being responsible for safety on the job as well.
To help make this happen, make sure you SHOW each worker how to properly maintain and store their PPE, as well as how to inspect PPE for wear, tear, and malfunctions, and how to get it replaced. Let them know that PPE won’t work if it’s broken, in disrepair, or not cared for properly.
Unfortunately, the “D” word may be necessary to use under certain conditions. If you elect to discipline, it is absolutely critical to discipline in a consistent manner. There is no quicker way to diminish morale or lose credibility with your workers than to be perceived as being inconsistent with disciplinary action. SHOW your workers you mean business by disciplining according to your written policy and/or union contract.
Until now, you might have thought that telling your workers to wear PPE was the best or only way. While the art of verbal persuasion can be a valuable tool, SHOWING your workers by setting an example, allowing no exceptions, conducting effective training and exercising consistent discipline, you can go a long way in achieving success with that perplexing program that has been keeping you scratching your head.
Remember, as safety professionals we must go beyond forming partnerships with divisions, departments and other organizational entities. We must form partnerships with individuals in order to foster the efficient and safe work environment. One critical element in the context of that environment is an effective PPE program.
Now it’s time to strengthen your resolve and go forth to proclaim the purposeful message of PPE. It may seem a lot like climbing Mt. Everest, but once you reach your goal, there’s not another view like it.
John Navroth is the Safety Officer for Snohomish County Government located in Washington State. He has 18 years of experience in the safety business. His latest certifications are in WA State DOT Traffic Supervision, Aquatic Facility Operation, and Playground Safety Inspection. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.