Rethinking PPE for a safer workplace
By N Venkataraman
Personal protective equipment (PPE) refers to protective clothing or equipment designed to protect the wearer’s body from injury.  PPE minimises exposure to serious workplace injuries and illnesses, which can occur by blunt impacts, electrical hazards, heat, chemicals, and infection.  PPE may include items such as gloves, safety glasses and shoes, earplugs or muffs, hard hats, respirators, or coveralls, vests and full-body suits.
The terms ‘protective gear’ and ‘protective clothing’ are in many cases interchangeable; protective clothing is applied to traditional categories of clothing, and gear is a more general term and means unique, protective categories such as pads, guards, shields, masks, and so on. The use of PPE is to reduce employee exposure to hazards when engineering and administrative controls are not feasible or effective to reduce these risks to acceptable levels.
Fatalities and injuries among the nation’s workers are substantially reduced with the use of PPE and technologies. It is estimated that 20 million workers use PPE on a regular basis to protect them from work hazards.  PPE protects workers from death and disabling injuries and illnesses as well as protecting them from specific threats, posed by exposures to certain airborne biological particles, chemical agents, splashes, noise exposures, fall hazards, head hazards, and fires.
Personal protective technologies (PPT) include respirators worn by construction workers and miners; protective clothing, respirators, and gloves worn by firefighters and mine rescue workers; and respirators and protective clothing worn by healthcare workers. An estimated 5 million workers are required to wear respirators in 1.3 million U.S. workplaces. Respirators are not truly classified as PPE but as PPT.
However, there are several problems and issues concerning the practical applicability of the term PPE. Personal protective equipment can be uncomfortable to wear; safety shoes, aprons, helmets and goggles worn by visitors are not really personal. Gear like helmets and goggles are not really equipment. There are many other examples to highlight that the acronym PPE itself is not suitable when used as hazard communication. A better description would be appropriate protective gear, or APG.
Rationale for choosing APG
Appropriate: In real terms, we would like to make sure the workforce uses the appropriate protection, rather than reinforce the personal. When the word appropriate is used, there is a greater sense of urgency and responsibility on management and employees to decide on what is appropriate to the hazards they encounter.
Protective: Is effective and provides the real intention. It gives a clear message to the user that the guards and equipment are meant to protect.
Guards: Equipment refers to something that can be used, such as gadgets. It is a paradox that we classify gloves and helmets equipment along the same lines as instruments. Any of the protective equipment or gear that we use is meant as guards. Guards provides the user with the same sense of belonging, an ability to highlight the importance of protection, is easily spelt and understood and can relate to common practices like machinery guarding.
The acronym APG should be practical, easily understood by all walks of life and should reflect its real intention, i.e. – protection against hazards.
The acronym PPE has been used for many years but it is time to review its relevance in any current and future context. PPE seems to be obsolete and inappropriate in terms of reflecting its intention. APG is more applicable, is more practical and also provides its real intent to the user. As a result, it provides a means to make the workplace safer through effective communication and use.
1 Personal protective equipment, downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_protective_equipment on 20 September 2014
2 Personal protective equipment, downloaded from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/personalprotectiveequipment/ on 20 September 2014
3 Downloaded from http://www.cdc.gov/ on 20 September 2014
N Venkataraman is associate consultant and trainer and an executive member of IOSH, Singapore branch