Just in case: does PPE make a difference?
By David Towlson
In Terry Pratchett’s 26th Discworld novel, Thief of Time, two History Monks (Lu-Tze and Lobsang) are rushing to deal with an emergency involving their procrastinator machines (used to move and store time). Standard health and safety issue is a thick cork helmet. Lu-Tze hands Lobsang the helmet, and the following conversation ensues:
“Health and safety at work,” he said. “Very important.”
“Will it protect me?” said Lobsang, putting it on.
“Not really. But when they find your head, it may be recognizable.”
I think it rather healthy to ask yourself, will that PPE actually make any difference? (or at least, enough of a difference, given the inconvenience of wearing it). An obvious fact but it turns out that most PPE isn’t needed most of the time (think about it laterally – when’s the last time anything hit you whilst wearing a hard hat?). Some types of PPE are routinely worn “just in case” – and that might well be reason enough. Perhaps its very presence diverts potential emergencies in a sort of pre-emptive cosmic, time-warp way – or maybe it’s just too stylish to be involved in an accident.
The just-in-case argument is valid because emergencies (and their outcomes) are difficult to predict. Yes, we all say an event was predictable but we don’t actually mean that – hindsight isn’t the same thing as prediction. And the truth is that it is difficult to predict the specific time, place, personnel and outcome of any given accident. General predictions are easy (e.g. there will be 49 head injuries in industry X this year…) based on historical records and trends but specifics are considerably more variable.
Related is other personal safety equipment, such as Hi-Vis clothing. Sounds a good idea, but just based on my own experience, if everyone is wearing it, it may well lose its impact and no longer point out those especially vulnerable workers – as we humans tend to ignore the familiar. As an example, I have been a visitor on a site, had to keep to specific pedestrian routes (accompanied as well), walking down what was essentially a normal street with pedestrian walkway to the office building and yet I had to wear a Hi-Vis jacket and hard-hat, because it was a site rule.
So, as safety people, when we use the just-in-case argument, we probably need to make that case better. We need to make sure we are addressing real risk reduction (i.e. a real safety argument) – primarily so we don’t look totally stupid. Wearing PPE just because it is “standard kit” is not convincing – people are not idiots. Yes, blanket rules are easy to enforce, but as professionals, we need a more reasoned argument so we don’t undermine our efforts by looking ridiculous.
David Towlson is director of training and quality at RRC International
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