Getting the Most for Your PPE Dollar

By Joe O' Connor

January 2007

The cost of the company safety program is often considered a financial burden to the organization’s bottom line. There is no doubt that implementing an effective and compliant safety program cost time and money. However, investing in safety should provide a return on your investment. Efficient purchasing of personal protective equipment will help ensure this return. Investing in protective devices is no different from buying equipment, vehicles or tools. The objective is purchasing the right equipment that provides the greatest value. Knowing what to buy requires an understanding of the OSHA standards.

A recent decision by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission raises questions and concerns over the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment. The OSHRC has ruled that employers are not required to pay for PPE. (The ruling applies to general use of PPE. Individual standards, such as 1926.62 Lead, may require employers to fund PPE. OSHA plans include revision of the general PPE standards shifting purchase responsibility to the employer.) However, this ruling does not remove other employer responsibilities. Employers must still ensure that all protective devices are compliant and properly used. To better control these responsibilities, many employers continue to fund the purchase of employee PPE.

Taken at face value, this strategy may not appear to be very attractive, but factor in the cost of lost-time accidents, and the purchase of protective devices can be a sound investment. For example, a company spending an average of $16,000 for each foot and ankle injury may significantly benefit from a protective footwear program. The $80 investment in safety shoes could save you thousands in accident costs and lost time.

Before purchasing PPE, take a careful look at the vendor as well as the devices it sells. By carefully evaluating both, you help ensure compliance and guarantee the greatest value for your safety dollar. Avoid the temptation of basing your purchasing decisions on cost and convenience. You must also consider the support the vendor may provide. Vendors who are knowledgeable and provide technical assistance can actually save you money down the road, even if their prices appear to be higher.

Wherever possible, consult a safety equipment distributor. The ones that really want your business will provide training and service for the products that they sell. Another important feature of buying from a local distributor is the fact that you can usually try and test what you are buying before you make the purchase. This not only saves you time and money, but also may be essential when fit and comfort is critical.

If you cannot find a good local distributor in your area, select a safety catalog company that offers a toll free technical support line. Go with one that offers a broad range of products including multiple brands, styles and models. Generally, catalog distributors offer lower list prices but their support is limited. Even if you have a local distributor but are still attracted by the catalog’s lower prices, ask the dealer to work with you. You’d be surprised how many are willing to do this, especially if you purchase in bulk or promise additional business.

Be careful when purchasing safety equipment from local hardware outlets. Their selection is usually limited and they may not carry the equipment needed to address your specific hazards and working conditions. Their staff may be proficient with nuts, bolts and nails, but lack the expertise needed to recommend, service and fit the devices they sell. In the long run, these bargains can cost you much more than what you save at the register. Don’t wait for a worker to fall from an elevation to discover he was using an inferior device.

Employers should also be familiar with the standards governing the equipment. OSHA usually references the American National Standards Institute standards. ANSI is a nonprofit organization that establishes consensus standards developed by representatives from industry. Match the criteria in the ANSI standard to the equipment to be purchased. The equipment will be stamped with the appropriate ANSI standard approval number.

The equipment selected should match the hazard and protective devices should match the worker. The most important feature beyond the protection factor is comfort. PPE that is not comfortable will not be worn. PPE that is not worn provides no protection. Not all features available on protective devices are necessary, but all devices should fit the worker and be comfortable.

Durability must certainly be considered when purchasing protective devices. However, other features may or may not contribute to products value. The tips listed below provide a brief review of common PPE and may help you in making an informed purchase decision.

Hard hats. Hard hats come in three classifications: protection from impact and penetration only, protection from low voltage and impact and penetration, and protection from high voltage and impact and penetration. Select Class E or B Hard Hats. They offer impact and penetration protection as well as protection from higher voltages without adding to the cost. Do not spend more money for a hard hat with a rain trough. It funnels water to the front of the hat dumping all that it collects in front of the face. A hard hat with a 6-point suspension offers better protection and comfort than 4-point suspension. Choose a hard hat with a suspension strap that rests low on the back of the head. The lower the strap rest on the back of the head, the less the potential for it falling off and the greater the comfort. Do not spend more money for a hat with an adjustable ratchet suspension for employees who use the same hat each day. A strap that adjusts manually in 1/8 or 1/16 inch increments offer the same comfort and costs less.

Safety glasses. When selecting safety glasses, choose a style that offers at least two sizes. One with replaceable lenses will eliminate the need to discard the glasses if a lens is cracked or scratched. Adjustable temples with ability to lengthen and a wire core to form to the head, increase comfort and reduce loss. Before buying safety sunglasses, you should know that polycarbonate lenses in safety glasses will provide protection from ultraviolet light regardless of their color.

Hearing protection. Appropriate hearing protection must be provided when looking for protection from high noise levels. Earmuffs generally offer greater protection to loud noises. However, a critical factor for hearing protection is the frequency (or pitch measured in hertz) of sound. Foam earplugs offer the greatest protection over the broadest range of frequency for the price. Do not spend extra money for headband plugs. They are frequently used improperly or not at all.

Hand protection. Evaluating the value of a glove is difficult. Check the stitching on cloth and leather gloves. Better stitching (tighter weave, double stitching, etc.) suggests greater durability and higher value. Compare physical features of chemical resistant gloves; mil thickness, length of glove sleeves (not all 11-12 gloves are the same length), dimple palms and flock lining. Dimples increase gripping ability. A flock lining may add comfort. Perform an in-house evaluation of molded gloves (latex, neoprene, etc.). The formula for gloves is proprietary and quality varies. To determine durability, document the period before replacement of the various brands used.

Foot and leg protection. Foot and leg protection have a safety rating (such as a steel toe rating, shank, electrical hazard rating, etc.). Make sure the foot protection is selected based on hazards present. Then, select the foot protection from that category based on comfort and style. Check the thickness of soles and seams. Better stitching and thicker soles offer greater durability and value.

Respirators. Respirators must fit properly and are specific to individual hazards. Consult with a vendor that will provide fit testing. Employees need to try various size respirators and may need a different style of respirators to achieve a fit. A local vendor may assist you in selecting respirators suitable to individual employees, which meet NIOSH/MSHA requirements for the hazards faced.

Ask about trade-in specials. Manufacturers may induce new customers to switch respirators by providing an allowance for old respirators.

Identify the type of use. Manufacturers now offer disposable, limited-use, half-mask respirators for as little as $9. These are practical for applications in which the user does not frequently remove the respirator and where their exposure is limited. Remember, they are to be disposed of after use.

If your employees are exposed to different types of hazards (organic vapors, particulates, ammonia, etc.), select a respirator from a manufacturer that allows various cartridges. Some manufacturers even offer a super cartridge that filters many substances at once. Many cartridges can be stacked together to provide broader protection. This provides protection for multiple hazards. Check with your vendor or the manufacturer to ensure its compatibility for multiple cartridge protection.

Whatever PPE or features you select, ensure that protection is provided for the hazards present. Attention to the employees’ comfort will contribute to the proper use of the equipment and compliance with OSHA mandates.

About the Author
Joe O’Connor is with Intec, Inc., Waverly, Pa. He can be reached at (800) 745.4818.