Forward-thinking employers are recognising that, far from being a burden, investment in personal protection equipment (PPE) and workplace health & safety can be harnessed to reap much wider performance benefits.
Healthy, fit and valued workers are more productive, more motivated, take less time off sick and contribute to lower staff turnover.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a ‘business enabler’. For a start, it’s at the bottom of the risk control hierarchy so workers will only don their protective apparel once all the other design, substitution, engineering, administrative and collective risk controls have been exhausted.
This makes it the last resort to protect workers from risks to safety and health. But this also makes it critical as PPE is the final barrier – or last line of defence – against injury or another health impact.
Figures from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) show that in 2014, workers suffered 95,950 fractures that required days away from work, while there were 97,080 cases of bruises and contusions.
Sprains, strains or tears were the leading workplace health problem or injury, with 420,870 of these cases requiring days away from work.
The US-based National Safety Council estimates the total costs of occupational deaths and injuries to the US economy in 2013 at $206.1 billion.
This breaks down into a cost per worker of $1,400 (including the value of goods or services each worker must produce to offset the cost of work injuries) and cost per medically consulted injury of $42,000.
“Good PPE is a wise investment in worker health, safety and wellbeing,” says Bill VanMullekom, Senior VP for D3O US, LLC.
“Just one injury can cost well beyond an initial avoided purchase. The best companies – those that are ahead of standards on the path to zero injuries – are following guidance, assessing what employees are doing, applying the appropriate gear, looking at different designs, and then reassessing where necessary.”
Working with employees
An ongoing problem across all industries is that too many injury victims were not wearing the PPE supplied by their employer.
An analysis carried out for the Health and Safety Executive, the British safety regulator, found that hand/arm and foot protection were the most common failure categories followed by eye and face protection.
Of the causes directly attributable to PPE, failure to consider the use of PPE (21%) and PPE being provided but not used (23%) were the most significant failures.
Among the main reasons workers don’t wear PPE are that it is uncomfortable, made from poor quality materials, prevents them from moving or seeing properly, is ugly or hinders them from performing the day-to-day requirements of their job.
“We often go on site, work with safety managers and take samples,” explains Joe Geng, VP at Superior Glove. “We collect feedback, such as ‘this product is more comfortable or has a better grip or greater longevity’. When this is done, workers know they’ve had a voice, it has not been pushed on them and in the end the business gets a better product.”
“The reality is that there are different buyer profiles defined by the primary drivers for purchase decision,” says Rodney Taylor, Global Sales and Marketing Manager, Industrial PPE for D3O.
“Cost is certainly an important purchasing criterion but the smart purchasers have learned that the cheapest product may not offer the best overall value.”
Dan Branson, Chair of the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) glove committee for back of hand impacts and member of the International Glove Association, is optimistic about the future.
“It’s about the decisions made by the guys at the top,” he stresses. “And the best performing and most forward-thinking organizations are really looking at the application and how to protect their employees to the maximum.
“If something does go wrong, they want to know they’ve chosen the best of the best; they want to be ahead of standards.”
Health & safety leadership
An intensive seven-year program of works to build the London 2012 Olympic Park from scratch, employed more than 40,000 workers but proved to be the safest ever Olympic build.
Work was completed without a single fatality and with an accident frequency rate of 0.17 per 100,000 hours worked, well below the UK construction injury average and comparable with the UK all-industry average.
The London 2012 project proved that leadership from the top, combined with a progressive approach to worker health & safety and wellbeing, will not only drive down accidents and related costs but can also boost efficiency and productivity, and enhance brand reputation.
There is still, however, a lack of hard data or research quantifying the effect on productivity from this angle, particularly for PPE interventions. “With productivity, people tend to prove it on the reverse side,” suggests Michael Hale at Mechanix Wear.
“They look at specifying the injury rate, and when it’s a reduction – and most of the time it is a reduction – they’re more efficient. They tend to look at it through that lens; they want to see how much injury they can prevent.”
PPE that provides the right degree of protection and looks and feels good to wear is an integral part of investment in any health & safety and wellbeing strategy.
To add to the evidence base and improve the business case for investing in the highest levels of PPE, leading organizations should be developing key performance indicators and benchmarks so they can objectively review, assess and measure worker satisfaction, reductions in ill health and injury, and return on investment.
In this way, the industry and its end users can move forward together, creating that ‘virtuous circle’ that provides not only the highest protection for the workforce but also boosts the business bottom line.
This article was originally published in Issue 01 of Impact Magazine, which is available to download from our Resources section.