Personal Protective Equipment Fit in the Construction SectorPosted on by
The construction sector includes a diverse population of workers exposed to many different types of hazards. An important way to prevent occupational illness and injury related to these hazards is by implementing the hierarchy of controls. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last control in the hierarchy, but PPE is particularly important when the other controls cannot sufficiently reduce or eliminate hazards.
Construction workers rely on various types of PPE in the course of usual work including fall harnesses, safety shoes, safety glasses, hardhats or helmets, ear plugs or muffs, and respirators. Their PPE must fit properly to provide the expected level of protection and allow them to safely perform their jobs.
Continue reading to learn about NIOSH efforts to improve PPE fit for all workers, including workers in the construction industry.
Equitable PPE Protections
Equitable PPE considers workers’ gender, race, age, shape, and size. Workers with different disabilities and job functions, characteristics of occupational settings (e.g., rural), and size of employers (e.g., small versus large employers) are other important factors. In November 2022, NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) organized the Equitable PPE Protections Workshop to confirm and identify the needs and challenges of diverse PPE user groups and facilitate partnerships. Government agencies, unions, non-profits, manufacturers, institutes, and universities joined the workshop to discuss this crucial topic. By inviting speakers and attendees from multiple disciplines to participate, NIOSH gained insight on: (1) manufacturers’ perspectives towards equitable PPE; (2) current gaps in equitable PPE design; (3) perceptions and beliefs held by workers that influence PPE use; and (4) factors that should be considered when designing PPE such as size, ethnicity, and facial structure. The workshop also provided NIOSH an opportunity to facilitate new partnerships that will help address the issues facing diverse PPE user groups.
NIOSH is also using crowdsourcing challenges to address PPE equity and fit issues:
- The NIOSH Protective Clothing Challenge sought solutions that consider the range of U.S. workers and factors such as body size, shape, gender, race, ethnicity, religious and cultural practices, or specific work tasks that may influence fit. After receiving more than 35 submissions, NIOSH awarded a total of $55,000 distributed to five winning teams, with one first place, one second place, and three third place prizes.
- The Respirator Fit Evaluation Challenge aims to account for varying shapes and sizes by crowdsourcing novel technologies and innovative approaches that deliver immediate evaluation and feedback to end users about the fit of filtering facepiece respirators during use. The first phase of this competition involves submissions which are due by May 1, 2023.
Other NIOSH PPE Fit Efforts
NIOSH continues to study PPE in relation to the physical measures of a person’s size, form, and functional capacity—this science is called anthropometry.
Examples of anthropometric measures used to design PPE include facial dimensions to design respirators and eye protection, chest circumference to design protective coats or coveralls, and foot length and breadth to design protective footwear. It is important that anthropometry databases and other information used to develop PPE are based on measurements that are representative of current working populations . In construction for example, the demographics of the U.S. construction industry are changing rapidly and currently consist of approximately 11 million workers with increasing percentages of Latinx workers and female workers.
Past NIOSH research studied the fall protection harness fit of male and female construction workers. In a series of studies NIOSH researchers advanced the science behind provision of fall protection harnesses designed to fit the increasingly diverse workforce in the construction industry . These researchers also extended their study to evaluate human-harness interfaces and their effect on the development of suspension trauma (injury from restricted blood circulation) after a worker falls and the harness successfully arrests the fall . This research helped harness manufacturers develop improved harness configurations to fit construction workers.
On-the-job Injuries from Inadequate-Fitting PPE
Sometimes, inadequate-fitting PPE may not protect an employee at all, and in other cases it may create additional hazards to the worker and those near them. For example, poorly fitting PPE is particularly relevant for smaller-framed construction workers who may not be able to use standard size PPE. Safety glasses slipping off, loose gloves getting caught on machines or exposing skin, or blisters from inadequate-fitting safety boots all make working more difficult. Fit problems can also affect larger workers. The PPE might be too tight and uncomfortable discouraging the worker from wearing it.
Recommendations for Using PPE Properly in the Construction Industry
Recent work by the Lawrence Technological University’s Construction Safety Research Center (CSRC) provided information about current problems and outlined several steps owners, contractors, and supervisors can take to increase the proper use of PPE. The study identified various PPE design factors that influence proper use in the workplace including poor quality and fit and discomfort when wearing PPE. Some recommendations for employers to achieve better PPE compliance were summarized by the CSRC, including:
- Improve PPE’s adaptability to diverse climates,
- Get feedback from workers to improve design of PPE,
- Provide improved, annual training for workers in appropriate languages,
- Improve workers’ risk perception when using PPE incorrectly or not using it at all,
- Investigate how PPE can work better for workers with pre-existing health issues,
- Encourage management to attend safety training and be involved in the development of safety programs.
What You Can Do in Your Workplace
Employers should identify the PPE needs of their workers, provide the appropriate PPE sizes and types, and ensure the PPE fits properly. There is a continuing need to provide regular PPE training for all workers in the construction industry. Language barriers and differing levels of literacy and previous training are among the important challenges that need to be addressed in regular training efforts.
Use the following questions to help assess the PPE in your workplace:
- Does your workplace provide a range of PPE sizes and fits to accommodate all workers?
- What challenges do you face?
- What solutions are out there?
- What do you need to do to ensure the appropriate equipment is available for all workers who need the protection offered by PPE?
Please comment on the challenges related to PPE you face in the workplace.
Mirle Pena, MS, is the Assistant Coordinator for the NORA Construction Sector.
Meghan Kiederer, BA, is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory and is the Communications Coordinator for the NORA Public Safety Sector Council and NIOSH Public Safety Sector Program.
Patrick G. Dempsey, PhD, CPE is a Senior Scientist in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.
N. Katherine Yoon, PhD, is a Fellow in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.
CDR Elizabeth Garza, MPH, CPH, is Coordinator for the Construction Program in the Office of Construction Safety and Health at NIOSH.
Scott Earnest, PhD, PE, CSP, is the Associate Director for the NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health.
Douglas Trout, MD, MHS, is Deputy Director, Office of Construction Safety and Health at NIOSH.
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- Hsiao, H., et al., Impact of harness fit on suspension tolerance. Human factors, 2012. 54(3): p. 346-357.