The Marine Accidents Investigation Branch (MAIB) recently produced a set of accidents reports on fishermen whose lives were lost at sea. One of the conclusions was seized by the media – that life jackets or “personal flotation devices” (PFD) should be compulsory, by legislation, for fisherman at sea. That the personal protective equipment (PPE) aspect of the reports was the focus of news reflects an attitude often seen in the workplace. Whilst the evidence for PFDs in the reports is sound, there are many other findings earlier in the chain of events that would prevent or mitigate the “man overboard” situation. In one report, for example, MAIB explain how the need for one of the crew to stand in an exposed position was removed after the event by the installation of a mechanical system; in others, there were failures to keep crew and running gear separate.
There is already legislation (PPE at Work Regulations) that requires employers, and the self-employed, to provide “suitable personal protective equipment” to control risks, except where “such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective.” However, Prosecutions under the PPE at Work Regulations are not common, as the PPE failure is usually part of a larger set of failures. For example, a Yorkshire foundry was fined this year for an incident where an employee’s clothing caught fire, resulting in severe burns. The HSE Inspector explained that the incident could have been avoided “had the company taken a number of simple measures prior to the work activity taking place – such as the provision of suitable work equipment, training and personal protective equipment.” In another recent case relating to the death of an unqualified scaffolder, the HSE also referred to PPE, explaining “It was entirely preventable and should not have happened. Scaffolders must ensure they use the right protective equipment and have sufficient edge protection in place to prevent workers falling.” The HSE highlighted the failure to provide a personal harness for the work. Both prosecutions, although involving PPE, were made under the more general failure to “ensure health and safety” required by the Health and Safety at Work Act.
When organisations are fined under the PPE regulations the offence is normally providing the wrong sort of PPE. For example, in 2015 a Northampton building company was fined as a result of an eye injury to an employee. The employee was wearing the lightweight goggles he had been provided with, but when a shard of metal flew up from a colleague’s nail gun, the glasses were inadequate. The HSE explained that high impact absorbing eye protection should have been provided. Disappointingly, the HSE don’t make this distinction clear in their advice on nail gun use. They correctly focus on the behaviours needed to prevent a nail gun accident, and then add “Accident analysis found that the vast majority of eye injuries caused by nail guns would have been prevented if eye protection had been worn” without specifying the type needed.
Older PPE cases show a similar pattern. In 2012 a London butcher was fined after an employee suffered a cut on his arm severe enough to required three months of physiotherapy. The employee had been wearing the wrist-length chain mail gloves provided, but the HSE argued that elbow-length gloves would have prevented the injury; in 2008 a Leicestershire foundry was fined when the foundry manager received burns severe enough to require skin grafts. The molten metal permeated straight through the wrist length rigger gloves, and up his sleeves. Longer heat resistant gloves would have protected his hands and arms.
One client asked me to recommend respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for workers whose job involved servicing lighting along the prom at the sea-side. The lights, as you might imagine, were covered in gull droppings, posing a risk of a respiratory disease called psittacosis. I phoned six different providers of RPE, and it was soon apparent that many had no idea what their products did. Eventually one sales rep arranged for a colleague to phone me back with informed advice on which RPE would be appropriate to prevent infection by bacteria. Make sure you identify which hazards you need to control when selecting your PPE and only buy it from a reputable source who you know will reliably tell you what you need for each hazard. Check out some samples with the workforce for acceptability before you invest in a job lot of kit no one ever wants to wear. Keep good records of what you have, what it can be used for, who needs to wear it, and when it needs to be serviced, inspected or replaced. Using an online system such as the PPE Software module in Engage EHS can help save a lot of time and effort.