Hot weather is no reason to work without required gear, but you can take measures to make your employees’ jobs easier.
By Randy Duvall
Summer weather is in full swing – temperatures are up, humidity is up and for many of us, breeze is nonexistent. In these conditions, it is a tough sell to convince employees to wear all of their personal protective equipment (PPE).
Surely you’ve heard all of the excuses: safety glasses and goggles fog, leathers are too hot, hard hats aren’t ventilated well enough, gloves are hot and sweaty, respirators make breathing difficult, ear muffs or plugs create sweat pools inside ears, and the list goes on. Then there are the side effects: chafing, rash, itching, burning – and that’s just the feet.
Employees who do not understand the reason for requiring PPE in the first place or the manager who decides it is more humane to let employees remove PPE in hot weather are both playing the odds, risking life and limb for a little relief.
The statistical books are full of injuries and fatalities that were the results of people making careless choices – decisions that would change or end their lives. But the statistics don’t show the faces, the body parts, the people who suffered the injuries or the families that suffered along with their loved ones. Yet most of the injuries could have been prevented.
When you explain to your employees why they need to wear their PPE, do you tell them it’s because OSHA (or MSHA, or CanOSH) says so? If so, you have missed the point and a great training opportunity. So what is the big deal about wearing PPE?
One goal you have in protecting your employees is to identify hazards and then find ways to eliminate or reduce the exposure to the hazards. That is accomplished in three ways: designing engineering controls (design the hazard out of the source); establishing administrative controls (enforce procedures or personnel rotation to avoid or reduce the hazard); and issuing personal protective equipment to protect the employee at the point of the hazard.
If you are already at step three – issuing PPE – then by definition you have already exhausted engineering and administrative controls while still having exposure to the known hazards. Providing PPE is not a substitute for eliminating the hazard. It is a last resort in acknowledging the hazard still exists and your employees have no other means of protection except through the use of the PPE.
Here is where you need to review your job hazard analysis. If your employees don’t need to wear PPE when it is hot, they probably don’t need to wear it any time. If the hazard continues to exist when performing a job, it doesn’t matter what the temperature may be, the hazard is still present and the PPE is the only means of protecting employees while performing their tasks.
An employee who chooses to remove or not wear PPE for the job is simply exposing himself or herself to an already known hazard for which there is no other means of protection and waiting for an injury to occur. The employee may be more comfortable for the moment, but how comfortable will it be to the employee who loses an eye when that flying particle makes a direct hit?
Here are some examples of actual incidents from employees and their managers who were willing to play the odds:
- A maintenance employee (welder) lit his own arm on fire while attempting to cut a piece of metal. While attempting to extinguish the fire on his arm, he stepped off from a pallet onto some water and ice. As his feet slipped out from under him, the torch went flying and he landed on his back and hip. Though his burned arm eventually healed, he remained out of work for hip and back complications that continue to nag him today. The employee was not wearing the provided personal protective equipment because it was “too hot and binding” for the work he had to do.
- A shop employee was using a parts washer to degrease a tool. His past experience suggested that safety glasses with side shields (rather than goggles) would offer enough protection, since he didn’t “splash” the cleaner very often. The eye wash station was close by, but lack of storage space in the shop led the employee to place spare parts between the eye wash station and the parts washer. When the cleaner sprayed back on the employee, the glasses were not enough. Temporarily blinded in both eyes, the employee now could not find the eye wash statio
- An employee was using solvent to clean off excess grease from a part. Since the employee did not want to get grease or solvent on her hands, she chose to wear her leather gloves. After a couple weeks, her leather gloves were soaked through, absorbing the chemical. Her hands began to break out into a rash and they became infected. The employee stated that she did not like the style of nitrile glove provided for this type of work.
- A production employee was using a cutting torch to cut steel. He was wearing his safety glasses with side shields, but he was not wearing filtered lenses or a face shield. He stated that he had experienced flashburn before, but that was during welding and not cutting. Since he didn’t have to cut for a prolonged period of time, he said he didn’t need anything else. Sparks and slag suddenly shot up from the torch, striking the employee in the face, on the head, in his ear and, bouncing up from his glasses, in his right eye. He ended up with a piece of slag in his middle ear that could not be removed and had a melted piece stuck on the cornea of his eye.
- An employee climbed up to a storage rack, approximately 10 feet high. In the process of shelving a spare part being raised by a forklift, the employee attempted to remove the belt that was securing the part in place. The belt became stuck, so the employee grabbed on with both hands and pulled. The belt broke free and the employee fell to the ground, breaking both wrists. He was not wearing any type of fall protection and there was no rail.
All of these examples caused pain, discomfort and lost work time for the employees who made bad choices. But during the healing process, their families were also directly affected. A spouse had to miss work to stay home and care for the employee. Wages were lost since workers’ compensation does not pay lost wages until after seven consecutive days. One employee missed his mortgage payment because he didn’t have enough income from the days he missed work from his injury. One employee could no longer pick up his daughter or skate with her or bike ride with her – all activities that he couldn’t do anymore. So in addition to the injury, all of these employees experienced additional stress and hardship in finances, healing and family life.
We all have responsibility to work safely. We all have responsibility to look out for our co-workers and remind and encourage them when we see them performing tasks that put them at risk for injury.
You also must train employees on the limitations of the PPE that is being worn. For example, steel-toed shoes offer protection for dropped items, but the protection is not unlimited. The best steel-toed shoe available meets ANSI standards through testing by dropping a 75-pound weight from a height of 18 inches. Go back to your physics class and drop that same 75-pound weight from 36 inches (just above waist level) and you will have a different outcome. If you have a suspended load of 1,000 pounds and it drops any distance, you do not have adequate protection for your feet under the suspended load.
In other words, PPE is good for certain tasks, but it does not protect from every known circumstance. Knowing this will help employees make better choices in how they perform their tasks without giving them a false sense of protection that simply will not and cannot exist. In fact, more than 90 percent of all injuries are related to people making choices.
Help your employees be successful. When you know temperatures are rising and they still have to wear PPE, give your employees more frequent, short breaks. Encourage them to stay hydrated and provide cool water in the work area. Ask your safety supplier to give you samples of fog-free goggles or cooling bandanas. Be open to suggestions and, by all means, ensure your employees are working with the PPE needed to perform the tasks safely.
Randy DeVaul ([email protected]) is a veteran safety professional/consultant and internationally recognized author, writer and speaker on Performance Safety principles and practices. Comments are always welcome.