Personal protective equipment, or PPE, can play an important role in workplace health and safety.
In some industries and occupations, PPE is an absolute necessity to protect workers from the harmful gases, vapours or other particles that they are exposed to due to the type of work they carry out. In other industries, workers could be exposed to potential fire hazards from oil and gas, electrical or transport and mining. For these workers you would think that fire resistant clothing would be essential to workplace safety. However a recent report has revealed that of the 500 people working in industries exposed to potential fire hazards, 28% of them do not wear fire resistant clothing for work.
Fire resistant clothing is essentially made from material that will extinguish flame after ignition and won’t continue to burn. So why don’t these workers wear the fire resistant clothing?
For many of them it is because their place of employment does not require them to do so, while others cited reasons such as the cost to purchase such clothing was too expensive or it is too hot to wear.
So what are the obligations of wearing and providing PPE in the workplace?
In this article we take a closer look at PPE and what the obligations of employers and workers are when it comes to this equipment.
PPE is anything used or worn by someone to assist in protecting them from the risk of injury or illness.
Personal protective equipment can include:
- Hearing protective devices, such as ear muffs and ear plugs;
- Eye and face protection (i.e. goggles);
- Safety helmets and sun hats;
- Gloves and safety boots;
- Clothing (i.e. high visibility vests or life jackets).
An employer may undertake, or engage a suitably qualified person to undertake, a risk assessment to evaluate the risk and performance requirements for the PPE, as well as the compatibility of PPE items where more than one type is required. If a risk assessment indicates that particular items of PPE are required, an employer must provide such items to workers.
Employers have a duty to keep their workers safe by eliminating the risk of injury as far as it is reasonably practicable.
How can employers reduce risk?
An employer may reduce a workers risk of injury by providing them with PPE.
If an employer provides personal protective equipment to their workers they must ensure it is:
- Suitable to the nature of the work and any associated hazards;
- Suitable in size and fit, and reasonably comfortable for the worker who is to use or wear it;
- Maintained, repaired or replaced to ensure it is in good working order, and clean and hygienic;
- Used / worn by the worker so far as it is reasonably practicable.
The employer must also ensure that their workers are provided with information, training and instruction in relation to the use, storage, and maintenance of the PPE.
Failure by the employer to adhere to any of the above may see them liable in negligence to a worker who is injured as a result of this failure.
A claim of this nature could see an injured worker compensated for their losses arising from their injury including:
- An award for pain and suffering;
- Reimbursement for past out of pocket expenses;
- Past loss of wages and superannuation;
- Likely future loss of wages and superannuation; and
- Out of pocket expenses expected to be incurred in the future.
For a worker to have an entitlement to bring this type of claim they must first have an accepted statutory claim for compensation with WorkCover Qld or the relevant self-insurer.
What are employee obligations?
It is important to note, however, that workers too have responsibilities when it comes to PPE.
For example a worker must:
- Use or wear the PPE in accordance with any information, training, or instruction by the employer;
- Not intentionally misuse or damage the PPE;
- Inform the employer of any damage or defect to the PPE, or the need to clean the PPE to which they become aware.
While PPE is designed to assist in minimising the risk of injury to a worker it can sometimes create problems of its own.
For example wearing PPE may:
- Restrict vision or mobility;
- Be uncomfortable for those who are required to wear it;
- Create new hazards (e.g. some items can hinder the body’s natural cooling mechanisms by preventing evaporation of perspiration).
An employer must therefore only require their employees to use PPE where it is absolutely necessary.
The use of personal protective equipment alone does not fully control the risks to a workers health and safety. Protective equipment is generally only used in addition to higher level control measures. PPE is therefore not likely to reduce the risk of injury, but instead, reduce the severity of any potential injury.
Nevertheless, where PPE is deemed necessary, an employer must provide this and, among other things, ensure it is in proper working condition. They must also provide their workers with information, training, and instruction regarding the PPE. Any failure by the employer to do this could result in a negligence claim against them by an injured worker. However, the employer does not bear all the responsibility when it comes to PPE.
Workers too must use, store and maintain PPE in the way required by their employer. Any worker who fails to do so and suffers an injury may see their award of damages reduced for having contributed to their own injury. It would therefore be in the best interests of the worker to wear all required PPE, as the use of such is not only likely to reduce the severity of any injury suffered, but may also save their life!