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Personal Protective Equipment: A Good Defense

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is our last defense because it means the hazard is actually at hand

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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There is an age-old sports cliché that goes “the best offense is a good defense.” Many coaches at all levels have used it and to great success. The Safety Guys believe it works well as a guide for your safety program as well. Most of today’s modern laboratories contain serious hazards, either from toxic or dangerous chemicals to equipment. And we know, as sure as the sun will rise, that accidents happen. Here is a recent example from literally hundreds that could have occurred in your lab.

A researcher was nearly killed and the laboratory seriously damaged when a distillation flask exploded. The researcher had performed the methanol-ether extraction hundreds of times, but apparently the ether had formed some peroxides due to age. Since he was using only 250ml of material, the resulting flash fire burned out quickly. But it set his synthetic shirt on fire, as he had left his lab coat on the coat rack. Fortunately, it set off the building’s fire alarm. The alarm alerted a coworker down the hall, who quickly found the researcher collapsed in the hall. A glass shard had severed the artery in his left forearm, but the coworker removed his lab coat to put out the flames on the researcher’s shirt and then applied a tourniquet.1

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Most lab and building managers probably know OSHA requires engineering controls as the first line of defense against workplace hazards. Source control through engineering methods can usually eliminate hazards from the workplace altogether or isolate them from workers.

Examples of engineering controls might include proper ventilation, machine guarding, hazardous product substitution, biosafety cabinets and ventilated work stations, and anesthetic gas scavenging systems, to list a few. Protection concepts are built into current OSHA standards and are found in 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I - 1910 Subpart I, Personal Protective Equipment.2

But engineering controls are not perfect. And although controlling a hazard at its source is the first choice, it doesn’t mean we can ignore personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is our last defense because it means the hazard is actually at hand—and without PPE, hazardous exposure or injury may very likely occur.

PPE includes items such as gloves, lab coats, footwear, face shields, goggles, hearing protection, and respirators.

Unfortunately, the researcher in the aforementioned incident was not wearing a lab coat when the flask exploded. If he had been, it might have provided protection and certainly would have reduced injury.

The OSHA PPE standard states, “Employers are required to determine if PPE should be used to protect their workers. If PPE is to be used, a PPE program should be implemented. This program should address the hazards present; the selection, maintenance, and use of PPE; the training of employees; and monitoring of the program to ensure its ongoing effectiveness.”2

Related Article: Guidelines for a Good Personal Protection Program

The OSHA standard requires documentation that the equipment selection is based on the hazard, employees have properly fitted equipment, they are trained on the equipment assigned, and the equipment is kept in good repair. A good PPE program should also include regular evaluation of the program to ensure the equipment used is appropriate for the job and the employees are actually wearing and maintaining it properly. Below we offer some tips on successfully using these major PPE program elements.

Workplace survey

The first step in identifying hazards and proper controls is conducting thorough workplace surveys and job hazard analyses (JHA). It is through these processes that we figure out the potential risks associated with a particular job and devise ways to control or eliminate them before an injury or accident occurs.

The JHA technique looks at the individual tasks connected to a job and then identifies controls for the hazards in each job step. When the hazard—for example, unexpected splashes or explosions—cannot be removed or controlled adequately, PPE must be used if the work process is to continue. Determining exposure from toxic materials may be required and entails air sampling and analysis that are often best conducted by a safety and health professional.

Selection of appropriate PPE

We recommend using a system that considers each body area: eyes, face, head, hands, feet, ears/hearing, respiratory system, and the whole body. For the splash example, the JHA should identify eye hazards (chemical/biological splash, impact) and chemical splash on the body, face/head, and hands, etc. Protection from potential splashes into the mouth or the eyes and face might well be prevented using chemical goggles and a face shield.

Gloves should be selected that prevent skin contact and contamination. This should involve consulting chemical compatibility charts (available from all major chemical glove manufacturers or distributors) before a decision is made. Employees should also be given a choice based on personal comfort and preference, where possible, of several different PPE options that meet the safety requirement. OSHA provides good assistance through the use of eTools and other guidance.3


If PPE does not fit properly, its effectiveness is often drastically reduced. If you have safety glasses that slide down your face because they are too large, protection is lost. Respirators must fit properly, or they are ineffective. There are respirator fit test methods using specialized equipment to quantitatively assess fit or qualitative challenge tests where isoamyl acetate, saccharin, bitrex, or irritant smoke is used. Gloves may be too large, creating entanglement hazards, or too tight. Once the proper fit is identified, it should be noted in the employee’s records.


Workers need to know:

  • When PPE is necessary—what jobs or areas require use of PPE.
  • What PPE is necessary—all the PPE required for specific tasks.
  • How to properly check, put on, take off, adjust, and wear assigned PPE.
  • Limitations of the PPE—For example, you don’t want someone wearing a dust mask for protection against anesthetic gases. There have been injuries and fatalities resulting from misunderstandings of the limits of PPE use.
  • Proper care, maintenance, useful life, and disposal of the PPE.

Training should be conducted by a competent person or safety professional who completely understands these key points and can answer questions accurately. The workers should have a thorough understanding before being allowed to conduct work requiring the use of PPE. Remember, OSHA inspectors will often quiz workers to see whether they understand why they are wearing PPE, the hazards they are protecting themselves against, and how they care for and store their equipment.


All too often we see old, damaged, and potentially dangerous PPE used by employees. Examples include dirty, misshapen respirators with ancient cartridges or missing valves; glasses or goggles so scratched that one could not imagine wearing them; filthy, torn earmuffs; or contaminated gloves or coveralls. PPE must be taken care of in order to adequately protect the worker. Poorly maintained and inadequately cleaned equipment can actually put workers in greater danger. Making sure that equipment is properly maintained is a key component of the program.

Monitor the program. As PPE is the last defense for our workers, it is very important to audit the program on an ongoing basis. This would include thorough investigation of any accidents or near-misses involving the use of PPE. In addition to the excellent resources provided by OSHA online, equipment vendors and their technical support groups can provide information on specific protective equipment. Many people equate safety with PPE. It can be very effective in preventing injury, but it is also the most vulnerable to failure, as it relies on people to consistently and properly use it each time. Develop and implement solid JHA and PPE programs to ensure your employees have maximum protection.


1. Flask Explosion Incident, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI.

2. Personal Protective Equipment, US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, D.C. 

3. Eye and Face Protection eTools, eMatrix, Expert Advisors and v-Tools, US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, D.C.