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Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Why It’s a Must for Worker Safety

As an employer, you must perform a hazard assessment of your workplace to determine if hazards require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Every person that stays in or visits a healthcare environment is at risk of acquiring an infection, but for healthcare workers, the risk is even greater.  Workers are more susceptible to contamination just by the nature of what they do; they’re exposed to blood, bodily fluids, respiratory secretions, and make direct contact with other infectious materials on a daily basis.

In addition to having an infection control plan, it’s imperative that staff use personal protective equipment (PPE).

What Exactly Is PPE?

According to the FDA, PPE “…refers to protective clothing, helmets, gloves, face shields, goggles, face masks and/or respirators or other equipment designed to protect the wearer from injury or the spread of infection or illness.”

Of course, PPE should not be relied on for sole protection. PPE should be used in combination with other preventative measures, such as safe working practices and adequate ventilation.

Types Of PPE

It’s important to perform a work area assessment to determine the potential hazards and select the appropriate PPE for adequate protection.

  • Gloves provide a barrier against infection. Gloves do not prevent sharps injuries, but they reduce the risk of contact contamination. They are single use items and are worn for procedures, blood draws, when cleaning up a contaminated space, to name a few.
  • Eyewear in the form of goggles or visors protects against splatter and foreign bodies during procedures and cleanup.
  • Masks provide barrier protection against splatter and airborne particles that can contaminate the face.
  • Aprons or gowns offer protection when staff come in close contact with either a patient, materials, or equipment that may lead to contamination of skin, uniforms, or other clothing with infectious agents.

According to OSHA, PPE is divided into four categories based on the degree of protection afforded. Here’s how those measure up:

  • Level A –  skin, respiratory, and eye protection is required.
  • Level B – highest level of respiratory protection is necessary but a lesser level of skin protection is needed.
  • Level C – concentration(s) and type(s) of airborne substance(s) is known and the criteria for using air purifying respirators are met.
  • Level D – work uniform affording minimal protection: used for nuisance contamination only.

The prevention of exposure to harmful bacteria or cleaning chemicals means employees mitigate infection and disease because they are properly protected from the often dirty job that they have to perform (cleaning waste baskets, for example, requires gear).

Personal protective equipment also prevents the spread of germs and bacteria from one person to the next. Dentists, for example, need to ensure they wear protective gear so that they can keep bacteria off their instruments. Cleaning crews need to reduce cross contamination, or spreading illness to other areas of the facility.

PPE also helps prevent staff emergencies on the job due to inhalation, absorption, irritants, or other prolonged contact with a cleaning chemical. This actively reduces accidents, improves the health of employees, and makes for a safer, secure work environment.

Not all PPE is for reuse.  The FDA states that PPE is typically designed for one-time use, and therefore falls under medical waste removal, but not necessarily hazardous waste removal.  It depends on whether the equipment in question has been soiled with infectious waste. Regardless, one-time use PPE should be disposed of after each procedure or activity to prevent cross-transmission of microorganisms. When these items are worn primarily to protect the wearer, the importance of their prompt removal between tasks or patients mitigates the spread of infection.

There are training programs available to help you and your staff understand the importance of PPE, as well as infection control practices used to prevent transmission of diseases and other best practices.

It is up to employers are required by OSHA to assess the workplace for hazards that necessitate the use of PPE and document that such an assessment has been done.  Is your facility well-equipped to protect your staff?

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