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Building 101: What is Construction Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

Building 101: What Is Construction Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

Personal protective equipment has a long and storied history. Today it’s the brightly colored hard hat, the hues differentiating companies, brands and roles on the construction site.

In the 1700s it was the doctor’s bird mask, both to protect physicians from foul air and, no doubt, to comfort the patient. Because how doesn’t a terrifying mask add to bedside manner?

In the Middle Ages, it was the blacksmith’s apron, made of thick leather to protect against flying sparks and the other dangers molten metal brings.

Of course, these are just a few examples of the many ways people throughout the ages have sought to protect themselves against the hazards of work with the help of equipment. For most of that time, these tools of the trade were simply referred to as “that thing I wear so I don’t hurt myself.”

Now, it has a fancier and official name: personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Unfortunate Dangers of a Construction Jobsite

It doesn’t take a panel of experts to know why protective equipment is important. Ideally, no one would ever get hurt on a jobsite, and safety gear helps make that happen. While there are many risks present on a construction site, and methods to help mitigate them, worker safety has always been and remains a top issue.

For instance, did you know that construction accounts for only 4 percent of American workers but for 21 percent of on the job fatalities? Moreover, 64 percent of these deaths are from only four sources: falls, shocks, blunt trauma or being caught in between objects.

On the other hand, nonfatal injuries, accounted for a whopping 71,730 of worksite disasters, with back and hand injuries leading the pack, many of them irreversible.

Clearly, construction sites are riddled with risk, which is why workers who refuse to wear their equipment – or superiors who don’t enforce it, or worse, make it available – can be fined so heavily. Thus, it’s critical for you to figure out exactly which personal protective equipment is needed on your construction site, then ensure it’s available at all times for your workers.

What Is Personal Protective Equipment?

According to Universal Class, “Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an all-encompassing term that includes gear worn by firefighters, soldiers, chemists, factory workers, miners, construction workers and police officers (among others), who wear in order for them to safely do their job or operate in a certain capacity safely.”

Moreover, PPE isn’t limited to a job site: “In theory, every time a motorcyclist dons a motorcycle helmet, he or she is putting on personal protective gear,” but “the two major industries utilizing personal protective gear are the military and many employment industries.”

OSHA offers another definition: “Personal protective equipment is equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical or other workplace hazards.”

The exact dangers you and your workers face varies with your industry, the materials you use, the equipment you employ and, most importantly, the effort you put into making your site safe.

How to Improve Worksite Safety

Luckily for you, OSHA has spent a lot of time thinking about how to enhance safety of jobsites. For starters, “All personal protective equipment should be safely designed and constructed, and should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion. It should fit comfortably, encouraging worker use. If the personal protective equipment does not fit properly, it can make the difference between being safely covered or dangerously exposed.”

Training is also a critical part of the PPE requirements set by OSHA. Workers must know how to use the equipment, when it’s necessary to wear it, how to put it on and take it off, proper care and maintenance and the “shelf life” of equipment. They must also know what the equipment cannot protect them from and a haphazard protective equipment program that isn’t clear about limitations can do more harm than good.

Plus, OSHA offers very specific instructions for the kinds of protective gear to which workers must have access. A body has many parts, after all, which need to be protected in different ways. Therefore, personal protective gear takes many different forms accordingly.

Protecting Yourself, Piece by Piece

Depending on the industry, role, and even specific project environment, equipment will vary. You may need all forms available, or just some of them. In a nutshell, these broadly include:

Head Protection

  • Hard hats or helmets when falling objects, knocks to the head or electrical hazards are an issue

Eye and Face Protection

  • Safety glasses and face shields to protect against foreign objects for applications such as welding, cutting, grinding, nailing or working with concrete or chemicals
  • Breathing masks for working with chemicals or hazardous materials such as asbestos

Foot Protection

  • Nonslip work shoes or boots
  • Puncture-resistant soles
  • Safety-toed footwear to prevent crushing

Hand Protection

  • Snug gloves that will stay on
  • Gloves fitted to the task at hand, such as insulated gloves when working with live wires or rubber gloves for concrete work

Ear Protection

  • Earplugs or earmuffs to protect against loud noise

Keep in mind that all equipment must also be inspected and replaced regularly. Especially important, is to immediately replace any equipment that comes into contact with and is damaged by hazardous materials. Failing to do so can make the equipment less effective next time and therefore increase the dangers and risk on a jobsite.

Know Your PPE Needs

At the end of the day, personal protective equipment isn’t glamorous, but it is necessary. Understanding what it is, how it functions and what your responsibilities are can protect lives, save money and contribute to the bottom line and good name of your construction company.

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