PPE is an acronym used to refer to the term ‘personal protective equipment’. This is an essential part of every workplace for their workers to be safe while doing their job. Without it, workers are exposed to a wide variety of hazards, which will depend on the job and the environment they’re in, and PPE will vary just as much to adapt to the hazards they’re meant to protect against.
To ensure a safe work environment, the PPE needs to be made to protect against the specific dangers the worker is exposed to. PPE can be worn to limit the risks of a wide range of working conditions, and likewise, PPE is as varied as the types of jobs available on the market. Some of the most common risks workers can be exposed to include:
- Mechanical hazards
- Chemicals and poison
- Electric burn
- Exposure to radiation
- Biological hazards, like viruses or bacteria
PPE needs to be selected according to the hazards the person is exposed to, and some of the most common pieces of PPE include gloves, eyewear like face shields or goggles, earplugs, protective footwear, hard hats, hazmat suits, and respirators, among many others. As we said: PPE can be very varied.
To better understand and to make a mental map of PPE, it’s important to know that it’s intended to protect five basic parts of the human body:
- Head and feet (like hats and boots for mechanical hazards)
- Eyes (like goggles or face shields for flying hazards or dangerous liquids)
- Lungs (like respirators for dust and smoke)
- Skin (like gloves for chemicals)
- Body (like warm clothing for extremely low temperatures)
Some PPE pieces are widely recognized, like the iconic hard hats in construction sites or eyewear used by welders or in science labs. But, it's important to point out that there are risks that might go unnoticed, and PPE is still needed for them, which is why every work environment needs to have the proper PPE and safety assessment, as well as good training for their employees. This way, the correct and complete PPE can be determined, and workers are taught why and how to use it.
Employers have the responsibility to have the complete and proper PPE needed by their employees available to them in the workplace. They have to select and provide it to them, as well as make sure it fits them, and they know how they work, why they’re necessary, and when to use them. PPE training also includes teaching them how to store and maintain it in a good state.
PPE in the healthcare profession is very specific to them, and it’s been especially important during the last several months. You've probably seen doctors and nurses covered from head to toe in layers of protective equipment until you can barely see their faces. In healthcare settings, PPE is used primarily to prevent exposure to materials that could be infected, since the main hazard present in this work environment are biological hazards.
PPE acts as a barrier between the healthcare professional and the microorganisms that could be contained in fluids in the form of airborne droplets and sprays or splashes and splatters, as well as solid material. ‘Airborne’ means that the particles are very small and they float in the air, with a diameter of approximately 0.3 micrometers. Airborne microorganisms can enter the airways and cause diseases, including the flu virus and COVID-19.
Some of the most widely used PPE in the healthcare setting includes:
This includes face shields, goggles, and glasses. Face shields are clear plastic screens that are used to protect the wearer from potentially contaminated and infected material. This item is used to act as a physical barrier between the wearer’s mucous membranes from the nose, mouth, and eyes, and the potential pathogens in the environment, during procedures where fluids can splash into their face, like surgery or during other medical procedures like cleaning a wound or getting a fluid sample.
Goggles and glasses act the same way as face shields, but they’re only designed to protect the mucous membranes from the eyes of the wearer. Glasses only protect the front and side of the eyes, while goggles fit more tightly around the eye area. Many options are designed to allow the use of prescription glasses under both of these items.
Surgical masks are disposable face masks used widely in the healthcare profession. They're designed to act primarily as a physical barrier between the wearer's mouth and nose and the environment. This way, their faces are protected against splashes, splatter, or sprays of fluids coming from the environment, and vice-versa. They're sterile, and are usually worn during procedures in which maintaining a sterile field is important, like surgeries, or when treating an immunocompromised patient. As a filter, they can only protect against large particles, which doesn't include dust or smoke, and they have limited effectiveness for virus protection.
In the USA, respirators are regulated under very specific standards known as the NIOSH respirator classification. Inside it, the most widely used respirator in a healthcare setting is the N95 mask, which can filter out at least 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air, including dust, smoke, and viruses like the flu or the novel coronavirus. They're considered the best face mask for virus protection at the moment, and some of the most popular models are 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511.
KN95 masks are also respirators, but they’re not regulated under the standard used in the United States, but the one used in China. However, KN95 masks can be used when N95 respirators aren’t available, since they have very similar properties.
Most of these items can be found for sale online, available to buy in bulk and wholesale for hospitals or other work settings.