PPE has become synonymous with the recent coronavirus outbreak. From shortages to lack of understanding around effective use, many workplaces will re-open for business with staff kitted out in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but what is it and how should it be used?
What is Personal Protective Equipment?
PPE is nothing new and is worn by workers across a range of industries. In the case of coronavirus, we have seen PPE in a medical setting which usually includes masks, full-length water repellent gowns, visors and gloves.
In other settings, PPE can mean a high-visibility vest, jacket or other items of clothing, along with steel-toe capped boots.
Whichever form it takes, PPE is the additional pieces of clothing that workers are required or encouraged to wear as an extra layer of defence against hazards. In essence, used correctly, PPE can minimise risks associated with working with patients with infectious diseases, for example.
How should PPE kit be used?
Our understanding of coronavirus and how it spreads from person to person has placed a spotlight on PPE, in particular face masks, visors and gloves. A disease spread and caught by inhaling infected droplets suggests that wearing a face mask makes sense.
In addition, scientists tell us that the virus can live on some surfaces, such as metal and plastic, for up to 72 hours. Regular handwashing is, therefore, a must, although some people rely on gloves.
PPE is just as much about protecting yourself, as it is other people, especially in the case of halting the spread of COVID-19.
But all PPE must be used correctly. Incorrect use leads to a false sense of security and yet, the layer of protective equipment you are relying on is not delivering the protection you think it is.
How often should PPE be replaced?
In terms of a medical setting, we have seen issues around shortages and, as a result, medics were being asked, in some cases, to re-use PPE. In some high-risk clinical settings, gowns would be changed two or three times in a 12-hour shift and always when they became soiled. A shortage of some PPE pieces meant that hospital laundries were washing gowns at 60°c – not ideal but was considered better than medics not working with any PPE at all.
In some settings, PPE items will be changed several times a day by the wearer, as in a medical setting but for construction workers, when should their PPE be changed?
A timetable makes an obvious solution with new PPE such as new steel-toe capped boots and high visibility vests handed out every six weeks or six months but as the HSE noted, this has the potential to be wasteful.
PPE should be replaced when it no longer offers adequate protection to the employee and so, when a high-viz vest becomes dirty its visible nature is compromised and should be replaced.
The environment and setting will also dictate the frequency of changing PPE, as well as how prevalent hazards and risks are.
Can PPE be reused?
There are instances where PPE could be reused we see this all the time such as workers wearing the same high-viz vest for several weeks or months but in other situations, reusing PPE should be the last resort and done so with a robust risk assessment in place.