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January 28, 2001

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Maureen Alvarez, CIH, CSP

Hard hats, goggles, face shields, earplugs, steel-toed shoes, respirators. gloves.  What do all these items have in common?  They are all various forms of personal protective equipment better known as PPE.

Yet, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show:

  • Hard hats were worn by only 16% of those workers who sustained head injuries, although two-fifths were required to wear them for certain tasks at specific locations;(1)
  • Only 1% of approximately 770 workers suffering face injuries were wearing face protection;(2)
  • Only 23% of the workers with foot injuries wore safety shoes or boots;(3) and
  • About 40% of the workers with eye injuries wore eye protective equipment.(4)

A majority of these workers were injured while performing their normal jobs at regular worksites.

Personal protective equipment includes all clothing and other work accessories designed to create a barrier against workplace hazards.  Using personal protective equipment requires hazard awareness and training on the part of the user.  Employees must be aware that the equipment does not eliminate the hazard.  If the equipment fails, exposure will occur.  To reduce the possibility of failure, equipment must be properly fitted and maintained in a clean and serviceable condition.

A Personal Protective Equipment Program should address eye, face, head, foot, and hand protection.  Separate programs may need to be developed to address respiratory and hearing protection since the need for participation in these programs is established through industrial hygiene monitoring.

While the use of personal protective equipment is important, it is only a supplementary form of protection, necessary where all hazards have not been controlled through other means such as engineering controls.  Engineering controls are especially important in hearing and respiratory protection which have specific standards calling for employers to take all feasible steps to control the hazards.

Personal protective equipment should not be used as a substitute for engineering, work practice, and/or administrative controls. Personal protective equipment should be used in conjunction with these controls to provide for employee safety and health in the workplace.

Selection of the proper personal protective equipment for a job is important. Employers and employees must understand the equipment's purpose and its limitations. The equipment must not be altered or removed even though an employee may find it uncomfortable. (Sometimes equipment may be uncomfortable simply because it does not fit properly.)


Employers are required to assess the workplace to determine if hazards that require the use of head, eye, face, hand, or foot protection are present or are likely to be present.  If hazards or the likelihood of hazards are found, employers must select and have affected employees use properly fitted personal protective equipment suitable for protection from these hazards.  Employers should certify in writing that a workplace hazard assessment has been performed.  Defective or damaged personal protective equipment shall not be used.


Before doing work requiring the use of personal protective equipment, employees must be trained to know; when personal protective equipment is necessary; what type is necessary: how it is to be worn; and what its limitations are, as well as know its proper care, maintenance, useful life, and disposal.  In many cases more than one type of personal protective equipment will provide adequate protection.  In those instances employees should be given a choice.

Employers are required to certify in writing that training has been carried out and that employees understand it.  Each written certification shall contain the name of each employee trained, the date(s) of training, and identify the subject of the certification.


Cuts or bruises to the scalp and forehead occurred in 85% of the cases, concussions in 26%.  Over a third of the cases resulted from falling objects striking the head.(5)

Protective hats for head protection against impact blows must be able to withstand penetration and absorb the shock of a blow. In some cases hats should also protect against electric shock.  Recognized standards for hats have been established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Each type and class of head protector is intended to provide protection against specific hazardous conditions. An understanding of these conditions will help in selecting the right hat for the particular situation.

Protective hats are made in the following types and classes:

  • Type 1 - helmets with full brim, not less than 1 and 1/4 inches wide;
  • Type 2 - brimless helmets with a peak extending forward from the crown.

For industrial purposes, three classes are recognized:

  • Class A - general service, limited voltage protection;
  • Class B - utility service, high-voltage protection; and
  • Class C - special service, no voltage protection.

Hats and caps under Class A are intended for protection against impact hazards. They are used in mining, construction, shipbuilding, tunneling, lumbering, and manufacturing.

Class B utility service hats and caps protect the wearer's head from impact and penetration by falling or flying objects and from high-voltage shock and burn.  They are used extensively by electrical workers.

The safety hat or cap in Class C is designed specifically for lightweight comfort and impact protection.  This class is usually manufactured from aluminum and offers no dielectric protection. Class C helmets are used in certain construction and manufacturing occupations, oil fields, refineries, and chemical plants where there is no danger from electrical hazards or corrosion.  They also are used on occasions where there is a possibility of bumping the head against a fixed object.

The wearer should be able to identify the type of helmet by looking inside the shell for the manufacturer, ANSI designation and class.


Sixty-six percent of injured workers were wearing safety shoes, protective footwear, heavy-duty shoes or boots and 33%, regular street shoes. Of those wearing safety shoes, 85% were injured because the object hit an unprotected part of the shoe or boot.(6)

According to the BLS survey, most of the workers in selected occupations who suffered foot injuries were not wearing protective footwear. Furthermore, most of their employers did not require them to wear safety shoes.  The typical foot injury was caused by objects falling fewer than 4 feet and the median weight was about 65 pounds.  Again, most workers were injured while performing their normal job activities at their worksites.

For protection of feet and legs from falling or rolling objects, sharp objects, molten metal, hot surfaces, and wet slippery surfaces workers should use appropriate footguards, safety shoes, or boots and leggings. Leggings protect the lower leg and feet from molten metal or welding sparks. Safety snaps permit their rapid removal.

Aluminum alloy, fiberglass, or galvanized steel footguards can be worn over usual work shoes, although they may present the possibility of catching on something and causing workers to trip.  Heat-resistant soled shoes protect against hot surfaces like those found in the roofing, paving, and hot metal industries.

Safety shoes should be sturdy and have an impact-resistant toe.  In some shoes, metal insoles protect against puncture wounds.  Additional protection, such as metatarsal guards, may be found in some types of footwear.  Safety shoes come in a variety of styles and materials, such as leather and rubber boots and oxfords.

Safety footwear is classified according to its ability to meet minimum requirements for both compression and impact tests. These requirements and testing procedures may be found in American National Standards Institute standards.  Protective footwear purchased prior to July 5, 1994, must comply with ANSI Z41.1-1967, USA Standard for Men's Safety-Toe Footwear. Protective footwear purchased after July 5, 1994, must comply with ANSI Z41-1991, American National Standard for Personal Protection-Protective Footwear.


Injured workers surveyed indicated that eye and face protection was not normally used or practiced in their work areas or it was not required for the type of work performed at the time of the accident.

Almost one-third of face injuries were caused by metal objects, most often blunt and weighing one pound or more.  Accidents resulted in cuts, lacerations, or punctures in 48% of the total, and fractures (including broken or lost teeth) in 27%.(7).

Suitable eye protectors must be provided where there is a potential for injury to the eyes or face from flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapors, potentially injurious light radiation or a combination of these. Protectors must meet the following minimum requirements:

  • Provide adequate protection against the particular hazards for which they are designed;
  • Be reasonably comfortable when worn under the designated conditions;
  • Fit snugly without interfering with the movements or vision of the wearer;
  • Be durable;
  • Be capable of being disinfected;
  • Be easily cleanable; and
  • Be kept clean and in good repair.

Every protector shall be distinctly marked to facilitate identification of the manufacturer.


Exposure to high noise levels can cause hearing loss or impairment.  It can create physical and psychological stress.  There is no cure for noise-induced hearing loss, so the prevention of excessive noise exposure is the only way to avoid hearing damage.  Specifically designed protection is required, depending on the type of noise encountered and the auditory condition of employee.

Disposable earplugs should be used once and thrown away; non-disposable ones should be cleaned after each use for proper maintenance.  Earmuffs need to make a perfect seal around the ear to be effective.  Glasses, long sideburns, long hair, and facial movements, such as chewing, can reduce protection.  Special equipment is available for use with glasses or beards.

OSHA has promulgated a final rule on requirements for a hearing conservation program.  An Industrial Hygienist should conduct sound level monitoring to determine noise exposure levels and the recommended corrective actions.  For more specific information on a hearing conservation program see Title 29 CFR 1910.95 - Occupational Noise Exposure.


Burns, cuts, electrical shock, amputation and absorption of chemicals are examples of hazards associated with arm and hand injuries. A wide assortment of gloves, hand pads, sleeves and wristlets for protection from these hazards is available.

The devices should be selected to fit the specific task. Rubber is considered one of the best material for insulating gloves and sleeves and must conform to ANSI standards (copies available from ANSI, 1430 Broadway, New York, NY 10018).  Other glove and clothing materials consist of latex, nitrile, butyl rubber, neoprene, etc.  Each material is thoroughly tested and rated against specific chemical compounds.  Your safety equipment vendor can provide you with up to date chemical test information.


Many hazards can threaten the torso: heat, splashes from hot metals and liquids, impacts, cuts, acids, and radiation. A variety of protective clothing is available: vests, jackets, aprons, coveralls, and full body suits.  Fire retardant wool and specially treated cotton clothing items are comfortable, and they adapt well to a variety of workplace temperatures. Other types of protection include leather, rubberized fabrics, and disposable suits.


Information on the requirements for respirators to control of occupational diseases caused by breathing air contaminated with harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays, and vapors is available in 29 CFR 1910.134.

Respiratory protection will be discussed in detail in next month's OSH Basics article.


A Coast Guard-approved life jacket or buoyant work vest should be used if there is danger of falling into water while working.  For emergency rescue operations, boats and ring buoys with at least 90 feet of line must be provided.

Night workers and flagmen who might be struck by moving vehicles need suits or vests designed to reflect light.


Using personal protective equipment requires hazard awareness and training on the part of the user.  Employees must be aware that the equipment alone does not eliminate the hazard.  If the equipment fails, exposure will occur.


OSHA interprets its general personal protective equipment standard, as well as specific standards, to require employers to provide and to pay for personal protective equipment required by the company for the worker to do his or her job safely and in compliance with OSHA standards.  Where equipment is personal in nature and usable by workers off the job, the matter of payment may be left to labor-management negotiations.

OSHA's 29 CFR 1910.132 through .138 establishes the employer's obligation to provide personal protective equipment to employees as follows:

"Protective equipment, including personal protective equipment for eyes, face, head and extremities, protective clothing, respiratory devices and protective shields and barriers, shall be provided, used and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary by reasons of hazards of processes or environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards or mechanical irritants encountered in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment in the function of any part of the body through absorption, inhalation, or physical contact."


To have an effective safety program, one manager must be responsible for its coordination.  First-line supervisors must be convinced of the hazard and must be held accountable for their employees' use of personal protective equipment.  A safety program for new employees is a necessary part of any orientation program. An on-going safety program should be used to motivate employees to continue to use protective gear.

Teaming the correct personal protective equipment with a good training program can give the worker a large measure of safety where other controls are inadequate or not feasible.

Personal protective equipment can be effective only if the equipment is selected based on its intended use, employees are trained in its use, and the equipment is properly tested, maintained, and worn.

In the final analysis, the best protection comes from an interested management and work force committed to sound work practices.


1. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Head Injuries, Report 605, (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, July 1980) p. 1.

2. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Face Injuries, Report 604, (Washington, D.C., GPO, May 1980) p. 10, Table 10.

3. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Foot Injuries, Report 626, (Washington, D.C., GPO, January 1981) p. 13, Table 11.

4. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Eye Injuries, Report 597, (Washington, D.C., GPO, April 1980) p. 12, Table 9.

5. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Head Injuries, Report 605, (Washington, D.C., GPO, July 1980) p. 7, Table 6.

6. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Foot Injuries, Report 626, (Washington, D.C., GPO, January 1981) p. 13, Table 11, and p. 1.

7. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accidents Involving Face Injuries, Report 604, (Washington, D.C., May 1980) p. 4, Table 3, and p. 2, Table 2.

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Original articles © WorkCare™; Orange, California.