Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and was completely revamped and updated in September 2018 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
What is personal protective equipment (PPE)?
PPE is equipment that's worn to minimize workers’ exposure to occupational safety hazards that cause serious injuries and illnesses. PPE can include items such as hard hats, gloves, eye high-visibility clothing, safety footwear and safety harnesses.
What are the 4 types of PPE?
With so many different products available in today’s marketplace, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To keep things simple, PPE can be broken down into the following four types:
- Eye and Face Protection: This type of PPE protects your eyes and face from hazards such as chemical splashes, laser radiation, extreme heat, or flying debris. Some examples of eye and face protection equipment include face shields, general safety glasses, laser safety glasses, chemical splash goggles and impact goggles.
- Hand Protection: This equipment is worn to protect workers' hands from sharp edges, pinch points, rotary machinery, hot objects, electricity, or splinters and chemicals.
- Body Protection: Coveralls, splash suits, aprons, jackets, vests, lab coats and surgical gowns, and full-body suits are all examples of body protection PPE. This equipment comes in a variety of different materials suitable for different kinds of hazards.
- Respiratory Protection: This PPE protects wearers from inhaling hazardous substances in the air. Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) is mainly divided into two types, respirators and breathing apparatuses. It's important to keep in mind that respiratory protective equipment (RPE) should only be used as a last line of defense after all other controls to mitigate inhalation hazards have been set.
When should PPE be used?
Before resorting to PPE, safety professionals should first determine whether it’s possible to control risks without the use of this equipment.
This means that you should run a risk assessment to identify hazards and set controls to mitigate them.
If you need help performing a risk assessment, check out our helpful guide.
If you complete this assessment and find that some hazards cannot be mitigated through other means, then the appropriate PPE must be provided to workers.
Work that requires the use of PPE can involve the following hazards:
- Dangerous procedures, such as with some assembly line, manufacturing, and maintenance jobs;
- Environmental hazards like falling objects, dangerous contaminants, and open pits;
- Chemical hazards, including exposure to substances that could have long-term effects on your health;
- Radiological hazards, which can sometimes be found in healthcare and industrial environments;
- And mechanical irritants, which are any objects that could puncture or cut your skin.
What is the proper use of PPE?
While each type of PPE has its own features and capabilities, there are some rules that you should always follow. For example, PPE should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion. Before putting on a piece of equipment, you should inspect it to confirm it’s sanitary and in good working order. If you notice any damage or defect, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Don’t put it on. Instead, you should immediately notify the person(s) responsible for providing the equipment of any issues.
How to select the right PPE
When selecting PPE for workers, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is exposed and to what?
- How long are they exposed for?
- How much are they exposed to?
If workers will need to wear more than one item of PPE at a time, make sure they can be used together. For example, is there a potential that a worker’s safety glasses could disturb the seal of a respirator?
You should also consider how the equipment will suit the user. Think about its size, fit, and weight. If the PPE fits workers comfortably, they’ll be more likely to use it. Properly fitting PPE can make the difference between being dangerously exposed or safely covered.
What are OSHA’s PPE training requirements?
PPE can't protect you if you don't know how to use it properly. That's why OSHA requires workers to receive training on how to safely use this equipment.
According to OSHA PPE standard 1910.132(f)(1), workers need to be trained on the following:
When PPE is necessary;
What PPE is necessary;
How to properly don, doff, adjust, and wear PPE;
The limitations of the PPE;
And the proper care, maintenance, useful life and disposal of the PPE.
Employees must be able to demonstrate an understanding of these topics before being allowed to perform work requiring PPE.
If changes in the workplace render previous PPE training obsolete, retraining must be provided to employees. Workers should also be retrained if the types of PPE that are used at a workplace change.
What happens when workers don't use proper PPE?
If you aren't properly using PPE, you're at greater risk at being involved in a serious incident. That's what OSHA believes happened in Wheeling, Illinois, last year, when a 37-year-old man died while cleaning a tank at Sunnyside Corp.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the man breathed in methylene chloride vapors and fell to his death. OSHA told the news source that the employee was not wearing the proper respiratory equipment for the hazardous material that he was working with.
OSHA cited Phoenix Industrial Cleaning, the company that sent workers to Sunnyside, $77,200 in fines and 28 violations.
"No job should cost a person's life because of an employer's failure to properly protect and train workers,"
Diane Turek, OSHA's area director in Des Plaines, told the news source. "Phoenix Industrial Cleaning failed in its responsibility to evaluate working conditions and provide proper respiratory and personal protective equipment to workers cleaning storage tanks containing hazardous chemicals."