A carpet layer wears knee pads to prevent contact stress. A member of a road crew dons anti-vibration gloves when wrestling a jackhammer. But if a task requires protection to improve ergonomics, can a simple piece of protective equipment really do the job?
When making changes to a work environment to improve ergonomics, the first step is always to address the physical workplace design (engineering controls). If that cannot be done, administrative controls are employed to reduce exposure to hazards. But in certain instances, changes to the work or the workplace are impractical and because of the nature of the job, workers are put at risk of injuries or find that they can’t work to their full capacity because of the impact of a specific task. Only then should personal protective equipment (PPE) be considered.
PPEs don’t compensate for modifying the workplace or the task, but for a job like carpet laying where the nature of the workplace may not be consistent (varying work environment) or a task facing a maintenance employee where he or she services a large piece of equipment once or twice a month, altering the ergonomics of the equipment or the workplace just isn’t possible.
Only a few PPEs are considered to be beneficial for improving ergonomics, such as anti-vibration gloves, knee pads and clothing that accommodates extreme temperature work. Even these devices need to be used with basic guidelines to be effective.
First, a PPE must be carefully selected to match the task and the worker. For example, anti-vibration gloves come not only in different sizes but they also address different types of vibration and vibration frequencies. A pair of gloves designed to compensate for the vibration of a jackhammer may not be suited to a drill on an assembly line.
Second, PPEs are only effective when they are used properly and consistently. Knee pads can be distributed to all workers performing a specific task that involves kneeling, but the worker needs to understand why and how the PPE works and then use the PPE accordingly. Merely offering a worker a PPE doesn’t equal protection.
Third, PPEs can sometimes seem impractical to a worker. Gloves may be hot, or for a worker who switches back and forth between tools and tasks frequently, PPEs could present a perceived productivity limitation. Proper instruction and training can encourage the worker to accept and utilize the PPE.
Finally, in addition to proper training, education, fit and use, the nature of the equipment itself is integral to a PPE’s success. It’s important to note that what may be touted as a PPE may not actually offer protection at all. Case in point: back belts and wrist braces. While they’re often publicized as means of preventing injuries, research indicates that’s not the case at all; in fact, they both have the potential to do more harm than good.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-12-01.