Personal protective equipment (PPE) plays a vital role in keeping lab personnel safe. Items such as lab coats, gloves, eyewear, safety shoes, and respirators can help avoid mild and serious injury, as well as fatalities.
The appropriate PPE will depend on several factors, including the type of work being carried out, the materials being handled, and any regulations imposed by relevant governing bodies. For example, specialized containment labs have very specific requirements in terms of which PPE items must be worn and how they should be donned.
But even if personnel are kitted out with the appropriate PPE, if it doesn’t fit properly, it may not do its job. Poor fit can also lead to discomfort, which in turn could result in discontinued use. As Jonathan Klane, director of Risk Management and Safety Education at BioRAFT, notes, “If it doesn’t fit, people are less likely to use it at all.” This is particularly true of any item that fits too tightly.
Here, the risks associated with poorly fitting PPE are explored, and tips are shared on how to ensure common items are sized correctly.
Hazards resulting from improperly-fitting PPE
Of course, if people aren’t wearing PPE due to discomfort, they’re not reaping the benefits that these items provide. Not wearing gloves, for example, could lead to harmful substances coming in contact with the skin. Lack of proper footwear could expose personnel to the risk of falling objects, causing injury. Respirators protect against the inhalation of harmful substances, and not wearing one in certain cases could lead to serious harm or even death.
Klane explains that poorly fitting PPE could actually introduce hazards instead of minimizing risk. For example, glasses that don’t fit can slide down the nose, prompting the wearer to look over the top of the frames. There’s a danger here that this person has a false sense of security, making the situation even more precarious.
Risks can also be introduced with lab coats, gowns, or gloves that fit too loosely. Rogue sleeves can knock over vessels or equipment, causing dangerous spills and other hazards. Loose gloves may get caught in machinery and shoes that are too big can become tripping hazards. Respirators or ear plugs that fit loosely are essentially useless, and again, can lead to a false sense of security.
Proper PPE fit as part of a broader safety culture
Klane remarks that in most research labs, personnel typically aren’t being watched closely, as they would, for example, in a university laboratory. As such, the onus for compliance with PPE regulations and recommendations needs to rest with each individual.
However, Klane recommends that management take an approach that centers around a culture of care versus one of compliance. This follows the ideals behind the “Safety Differently” movement—also known as Safety II—which recognizes that human error is inevitable, but encourages management to provide employees with the tools to mitigate risks. It acknowledges that people’s actions should be considered as the solution to safety concerns, not the cause of them. By providing workers with the right environment for success, it becomes more likely they’ll take the correct actions.
PPE protocols should be designed in such a way that not only helps employees do their job properly, but also signals to them that management cares about their well-being. As part of this approach, management provides the correct PPE and takes the necessary steps to ensure a good fit. After all, as Klane says, “If we don’t care about fit, what does that say about us and our safety culture?”
How to ensure the correct fit
Some PPE items are simpler to fit than others. For example, lab coats, gowns, coveralls, and gloves come in multiple sizes and can either be tried on or ordered based on an individual’s size measurements. Here, it’s important to study the manufacturer’s sizing guide and take proper measurements.
Other items present hurdles, often because there aren’t standard methods to determine fit. For example, safety glasses are often an overlooked item. Everyone has a different face shape, so while the bow could be tight on one person, it could easily slide down the nose of the next. Safety eyewear should be comfortable with no pinching on the nose or side of the head. Visibility must be clear in all directions and the glasses should stay in place during regular front, back, and side-to-side head movements. Lenses must cover the wearer’s eyebrows and should not come in contact with eyelashes. Klane’s advice here is to have multiple styles available for personnel to try on to see which offers the best fit.
A respirator is another PPE item that must fit properly for the wearer to see the core benefits. In workplaces where respirators are mandatory, OSHA requires that they are fit tested at least annually, although this rule was relaxed during 2020 due to the pandemic. Qualitative or quantitative fit tests may be used depending on the type of respirator being fitted.
Klane notes that air follows the path of least resistance, so if there’s even a slight gap between the face and the respirator, this is a big issue. For example, even a small amount of facial hair could interfere with the fit, so it’s necessary that wearers of styles such as N-95 masks or dual-cartridge respirators be clean shaven (if applicable).
Another area that can represent issues is safety shoes. Mister Safety Shoes reveals that 60 percent of people have different sized feet, and shoes need to be fitted for the larger foot for maximum comfort. Aside from width and length, the company always measures arch length when fitting shoes, and offers different styles to ensure the foot arch can rest comfortably.
When PPE fits incorrectly, it can do more harm than good. Aside from introducing physical hazards, it can lead to dangerous complacency and a relaxed attitude toward safety. Properly-fitting PPE can not only help mitigate the obvious risks, but also encourage positive safety practices within an organization.