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Workers Using Inappropriate PPE? Perhaps Not
A Case of Mistaken Assumptions About PPE
July 1, 2014 - Have you ever experienced this? You're in a training class and the instructor brings up a certain topic, then all of the sudden the room becomes electrified! All of the trainees are sitting on the edge of their seats because they have a lot of pent-up questions and/or uncertainties about that topic. And now that the floodgates are opened, they can’t wait to ask their question or voice their concern. It really is something special to experience.
This happened to me recently while conducting an OSHA 10-hour construction class for a group of professionals in the cellular communications industry. The group consisted mostly of project managers, engineers, and construction managers associated with one of the major wireless networks, who as part of their duties would always set aside some time when they visited their cell tower sites to evaluate the safety performance of workers. The topic I had just brought up was head protection, no sooner had I put up my PowerPoint slide showing a hard hat when almost every hand in the room shot up and people started shouting out their questions. This topic had obviously struck a nerve with this particular group.
It seems that some of the sub-contract workers who climb their cell towers were not wearing traditional hard hats. One trainee said he recently saw some of those workers wearing what he thought were bicycle helmets, and several others said that not too long ago they had witnessed workers wearing what they believed to be sports helmets like the type worn by rock-climbers. And all of the trainees thought these were improper for workers to wear because they were not the traditional “ANSI-approved” hard hats. In fact, one man boasted that he had actually shut down one crew until they got regular hard hats because wasn’t going to stand for them wearing the unapproved bicycle helmets.
However, one of the younger men in the room who was brand new to the group used to be a tower climber. After most everyone else had their say, he spoke up and said he had recently worn one of the “rock-climbing” helmets while tower climbing and that he preferred them over traditional hard hats because not only did they offer good protection from falling objects, but they stayed on his head better. He also said they offered better protection against side impact (which can occur should a climber swing up against the tower a little too hard) and allowed much better visibility when looking up. However, he was unsure if these helmets would be allowed by OSHA for head protection, since he just learned in our class of the ANSI standards for protective helmets incorporated by OSHA.
Fortunately he recalled the name of the manufacturer of the helmet (Petzl) that he had been given to wear by his past employer, so we pulled up the Petzl website to see what information they had available about these helmets. Looking at their home page, it was clear that this company catered to people who climbed rocks and explored caves. But after some digging we found they also had a relatively new line of protective helmets intended for industrial use. Two of these helmets were designed for workers who climbed towers and performed rescue, and one was made for employees working jobs on the ground.
When we pulled up the product information sheets for all three models of industrial helmets (click on each photo above to see the info sheet for a helmet), we saw they all reportedly complied with ANSI standard Z-89.1 – 2009, which is one of the standards specifically referenced by OSHA in their head protection section for construction [1926.135(b)]. In fact, the company even offered visors and face shields meeting the ANSI Z-87.1 standard for eye protection specified by OSHA that could be attached to these helmets. After seeing this information, not only were the trainees relieved this equipment was acceptable protection for the workers, but we started brainstorming how these helmets could also be ideal for use in other types jobs outside the cell tower industry.
Now what is the moral of this story? There are several, I believe. First of all, I have always stated that I learn something new every time I teach a class, and this time was certainly no exception; I had never before seen these particular types of helmets used for industrial purposes. And if I had seen them being used on a job site I would have been very concerned until after I did some research. But we must also keep in mind that, while wearing unapproved PPE should never be tolerated, sometimes we must do some digging before we jump the gun and start chewing some poor worker’s butt for using what we assume is non-compliant gear. And lastly, I have to say that I am amazed how ingenious people are when it comes to creating, modifying, or repurposing something so it can be used for worker protection.
In fact, learning about these protective helmets got me to thinking about some of the other examples (some good and some bad) of such creativity. On the bad side, I have witnessed workers operating a cutting torch while wearing regular sunglasses in lieu of OSHA-compliant protective eye-wear. I have also seen some pretty authentic hard hats at flea markets that, after looking hard, I determined did not meet ANSI specifications. I even once saw a young man with foam ear-plugs shoved up both of his nostrils while he was spraying paint. But one of the worst cases of inappropriate PPE I can recall was a worker at a sand-blasting facility who had fashioned himself a homemade “blasting hood” out of a half-mask supplied air respirator, welding hood, burlap sack, and a bunch of duct tape! Of course, in all of these cases it was actually the employer’s responsibility for the workers use of inappropriate gear because they did not supply the proper equipment to their workers.
But there are many examples of protective gear and equipment that evolved over time to offer better protection than the original products. For example, workers have access to tools like bung wrenches and hammers (tools typically made of steel) that are manufactured from brass so they don’t create sparks that could ignite flammable vapors when working in classified areas. And some manufacturers now use composite materials (instead of steel) to make protective toe-caps in some brands of ANSI-compliant safety footwear; in fact many workers tell me they find this type to be more comfortable that steel-toe shoes, yet they are just as protective. Also, the marriage of flame retardant materials (or treatments) with work uniforms help protect employees exposed to potential flash fires and explosions from suffering horrific burns made worse by clothing manufactured from nylon, polyester, and similar materials that can literally melt into the workers skin.
So, as safety gear evolves over time we as employers and safety professionals must constantly check what our workers are using to make certain it meets or exceeds the specifications set forth by OSHA. Because allowing the use of sub-standard gear or equipment for worker protection could result in an unnecessary injury, illness, or even a fatality.
Can you think of any other applications where these industrialized versions of “rock-climbers” helmets might be better suited for use than a traditional hard hat? Have you ever run across a worker using protective gear or equipment that you thought was inappropriate to protect against a hazard only to learn later that it was in fact approved for that use (or visa-versa)? If so, or if you have any other comment pertinent to this topic, please share your story with others by clicking here and entering your comment in the “Comments” box. And last but not least, I would like to encourage you to Share this Blog with others in your Network who might benefit from reading this post.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Curtis Chambers is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) with a Master of Science degree in Occupational Safety and Health. He has held numerous positions managing and evaluating workplace safety and health at various public organizations and private corporations, and is currently the President of OSHA Training Services Inc. Visit their website at www.oshatraining.com.
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