The right stuff for safety

Essentials of personal protective equipment purchasing

August 23, 2016
by CCOHS Staff
safety equipment

Image: Aleksandar Kosev/Getty Images/Thinkstock

From the August 2016 print edition

Exposure to workplace hazards is a daily reality for many. Ideally, these hazards should be eliminated, controlled at the source or reduced through administrative measures. When all other methods are either unavailable or impossible to implement, personal protective equipment (PPE)—the last level of protection—may be used so that work can continue safely.
Understanding the basics of PPE and its selection can play an important part in developing and maintaining a complete health and safety program.

What is personal protective equipment (PPE)?
PPE is equipment worn by a worker to reduce or minimize exposure to specific physical, chemical, ergonomic or biological occupational hazards. Examples of PPE include respirators, gloves, aprons, fall protection, and full body suits, as well as head, eye and foot protection. Using PPE is one element in a complete safety program that should use a variety of strategies to maintain a safe and healthy occupational environment.

When should PPE be used?
It is important to understand that PPE does not eliminate the hazard. Therefore, it does not guarantee permanent or total protection. However, appropriate use of PPE will reduce the risk of injury. For example, wearing hearing protection reduces the likelihood of hearing damage when the earplugs or muffs are appropriate for the kind of noise exposure, and they are used properly (hearing protection does not eliminate the noise). PPE should only be used:

  • when no other control method is possible;
  • as an interim measure before other controls are implemented;
  • for emergencies and during maintenance activities;
  • for situations where other control methods don’t provide enough protection.

How to select PPE
Once the need for PPE has been established, the next task is to select the proper type. Two criteria need to be determined: the degree of protection required and the appropriateness of the equipment to the situation (including the practicality of the equipment used and kept in good repair). The degree of protection and the design of PPE are integrated because both affect its overall efficiency, wearability, and acceptance of the equipment. Use the following guidelines to help you select the best PPE.

Match the PPE to the hazard. There are no shortcuts to PPE selection. Conduct a hazard assessment and choose the right PPE to match the hazards.

Get expert advice and shop around. Discuss your needs with an occupational health and safety specialist and trained sales representatives. Ask for alternatives, check into product claims and test data.

Involve workers in evaluations. The most common reason for failure of a PPE program is the inability to overcome worker objections to wearing it. Bring approved models into the workplace for trials so workers have the opportunity to evaluate various models.

Consider physical comfort of the PPE (ergonomics). If a PPE device is unnecessarily heavy or poorly fitted it is unlikely that it will be worn. Use every opportunity to provide flexibility in the choice of PPE as long as it meets required legislation and standards.

Evaluate cost considerations. The cost of PPE is often a concern and disposable options are not always cheaper in the long term.

Review regulatory requirements and standards. In Canada, two of the more common standards include the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Bureau de normalisation du Quebec (BNQ).

PPE is the last step in the hierarchy of controls, making it the last level of protection between the worker and the hazard. Therefore, it is especially important that the correct PPE is selected, worn and maintained. A complete PPE program consists of many steps from the initial workplace assessment to routine evaluation and review.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) is Canada’s national resource for the advancement of workplace health and safety. Visit their website at