Travel through any workplace and you'll likely find yourself in a minefield of hazards—sparks, noise, chemicals, falling objects, and sharp edges, just to name a few.

Often attempts are made to control a hazard, but when this isn't feasible, other measures must be used to safeguard employees and prevent workplace injuries. OSHA requires employers to protect employees from workplace hazards that cause injury by not only providing personal protection equipment (PPE) but also ensuring that workers receive proper training on how and when to use it. This training includes: when PPE is necessary and how to properly wear it; what its limitations are; how to determine if the PPE is damaged or no longer effective; how to care for the PPE; and who to inform should the PPE need to be replaced.

Unfortunately, noncompliance among managers, and even employees, is widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if all workers simply would wear gloves, more than 1 million hospital emergency visits by U.S. workers per year could be avoided. Last year, hand injuries alone cost employers more than $500 million in lost time, settlements, and other workers' comp costs.

Encouraging a safety culture

A lack of commitment to create a culture that reenforces the need for PPE starts with employers. A recent survey commissioned by the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), Arlington, Va., of safety influencers in the heavy construction industry revealed that the main reason workers chose not to wear PPE when needed was because “employers don't require or enforce usage.”

Although many employers realize PPE use results in workplace safety, higher morale, and lower insurance premiums, many don't update equipment, assess new situations, or require rigorous enforcement. The adverse result is loss of manpower and higher workers' comp costs. For some companies, a high number of injuries hinders competitiveness when bidding on certain contracts—a high price to pay for the low cost of a carton of safety goggles.

Employees often cite discomfort as a reason to overlook wearing PPE. Employees often cite discomfort as a reason to overlook wearing PPE.

For employers, PPE can protect not only their employees but also the company's bottom line. An auto parts manufacturer in Michigan, recently saw its claims costs escalate more than 20%. After some review, it was discovered that part of the problem was an issue with employees not wearing safety glasses.

Working closely with the safety committee and the human resources department, the company reduced reported injuries and near misses by implementing a PPE training session and a “safe reporting without retaliation” rule that allowed proper reporting of safety glasses issues among coworkers. The company now uses its excellent safety record to beat the competition for work. A win-win for the employer and the employees.

Overcoming employee relunctance

Why are some employees reluctant to wear PPE? A Kimberly-Clark professional survey taken at the 2007 National Safety Council Congress and Expo, held in Chicago, found discomfort was the most common reason. A good solution is to involve employees in the selection process: Have a select group that represents the employees using the gear try different samples. More than one style may be needed to accommodate the workforce.

Employees commonly believe PPE is not necessary for the task, having performed the task for many years without injury. Showing employees videos of what can happen when PPE isn't used or having someone who sustained an injury speak to the group is an effective way to combat this excuse.

Another concern of employees is the unattractive nature of PPE . If employees are content with their appearance, they will be more likely to use the proper safety equipment. Increasingly, manufacturers are improving style, offering color and style options, to increase use.

Kevin Ring is the lead workers' compensation analyst for the Institute of Work-Comp Professionals, Asheville,

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