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Reducing workplace injuries through personal protection equipment

We all know how important it is to reduce injuries to workers. After all, they impact the worker's health and safety, ability to work and finances -- and they also hurt employee morale, the company's bottom line and, in serious cases, the organization's standing in the community.

One of the areas where employers could do better in preventing workplace injuries is in the proper provision of personal protection equipment. Enforcement actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in this area are quite common and can be costly. For example, an Illinois company was recently fined a proposed $41,200 because it failed to provide eye, face, hand and respiratory protection devices and training, and did not have adequate evacuation procedures in place, in an area where workers were exposed to hydrochloric acid.

Employers are required to provide workers with appropriate personal protection equipment, which includes items such as hard hats, safety glasses, goggles, face-shields and welding helmets. They are also required to provide each employee with appropriate, up-to-date training on when and how to wear personal protection equipment properly.

But beyond compliance with that mandate, what should employers be doing to prevent workplace injuries from exposure to chemicals, for example? And what should employees know?

For protection from chemical and environmental hazards in particular, OSHA recently updated its appendix recommendations on limiting occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories. The appendix recommendations are non-mandatory, but can help employers and employees alike to increase safety in the workplace.

Basing its recommendations on an 2011 publication by the National Academy of Science, OSHA advises using a "hierarchy of controls principle." Researchers determined that the most effective ways of controlling workers' exposure to hazardous materials, listed in order of most to least effective, are:

  • Engineering controls, such as chemical hoods, which physically separate the worker from the hazard.
  • Administrative controls, such as control over work schedules to limit exposure time.
  • Work practice controls, such as the standardization of how tasks are performed, which emphasize minimizing hazards.
  • Personal protection equipment, when exposure is unavoidable.

Whether you're a worker or the company's safety officer, if your workplace involves exposure to hazardous chemicals you should take OSHA's recommendations seriously. Make sure your safety equipment is usable and effective, and learn how to use it.

Source: Occupational Health & Safety magazine, "Staying on Top of the Problem," Jerry Laws, March, 2013

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