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Why PPE should be your last choice when it comes to workplace hazards

“The problem with using PPE as the sole means of protecting workers from hazards is that it doesn’t eliminate or control the hazard, which is the goal of our workplace health and safety efforts,” says Jessica Major, WSPS Specialized Consultant (Occupational Hygiene).

The best practice in Ontario is to use the Hierarchy of Controls to manage health and safety hazards. These include:

  • elimination (remove the hazard)
  • substitution (replace with something less hazardous)
  • engineering controls (modify processes and equipment to reduce hazards)
  • hygiene facilities and practices 
  • administrative controls (so employees are exposed to hazards for a shorter period of time, etc.)
  • PPE (to be used in conjunction with other control measures or as a last resort)

“Employers that go straight to PPE without exploring other options may believe it’s simpler and more cost-effective,” says Jessica. “In fact, PPE can be quite costly over time.” 

The use of PPE also comes with a multitude of other considerations, says Jessica. “It’s not just a case of choosing a one-size-fits-all type of protection and you are done. Employers have to take into account legal requirements, fit, materials, effectiveness, training, and more.” 

How to use the hierarchy 

Workplaces in Ontario are required to delve into the other methods outlined in the hierarchy before resorting to PPE, says Jessica. “A workplace that determines PPE is the only solution to a chemical, biological, or physical hazard may be called into question if the levels of potential exposure are above regulated occupational exposure limits.”

Here are some tips for using the hierarchy: 

  1. Carry out a hazard assessment and risk assessment to identify all the hazards in your workplace and degree of risk.
  2. Put together a team that includes supervisors, joint health and safety committee members, engineers, maintenance, and outside experts, if required.
  3. Start with your top risks in terms of severity, probability and cost.  
  4. Go through each level of the hierarchy from the top down to develop ideas for controlling the hazard. 
  5. Use a combination of control methods to keep workers safe – for example, use protective barriers (engineering), improve ventilation (engineering), and implement job rotation (administrative). Use PPE if other methods cannot sufficiently reduce the hazardous exposure or when PPE is the only control option available. (See PPE considerations below.)
  6. Train workers on site and process specific hazards and implemented controls. 

PPE considerations

Employers need to be aware of the following when opting to use PPE:

  • PPE can be costly to buy, maintain and replace.
  • Wearing PPE can affect a worker’s productivity and efficiency. “Depending on the type of PPE, it may be very uncomfortable, restrict movement and breathing, cause fatigue, affect vision and communication, or increase the risk of heat stress,” explains Jessica.
  • Workers require training on PPE use, and supervision. These elements are often missing, says Jessica. “I’ve seen so many workplaces where hearing protection has not been inserted correctly,” says Jessica. “In addition to training, there has to be someone watching employees to ensure they are wearing it correctly.” 
  • PPE must be carefully selected. “For example, hearing protection must be able to reduce noise exposure for a worker down to the legislated limit, at a minimum. A respirator selected for use needs to provide an adequate degree of protection for the concentration of the chemical or biological agent to which the worker is exposed,” says Jessica.
  • PPE must meet legislated requirements. For tight-fitting respirators, as an example, there are legal requirements for fit testing to make sure the respirator that’s selected is a good fit for the wearer’s actual face.
  • PPE for chemicals must be selected based on Safety Data Sheets (SDS). “The SDS lists what PPE is required when using a certain chemical and what materials can be used in the PPE. For example, nitrile gloves are commonly used in workplaces to protect against skin exposure, but there are many chemicals that require a different glove material,” explains Jessica.

How WSPS can help 

WSPS’ occupational hygiene consultants can perform a variety of worker exposure assessments (airborne chemicals, noise, designated substances, indoor air quality) and help you develop programs to protect workers. Connect with a consultant.


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