Although personal protective equipment (PPE) may at first glance seem better suited to industrial or construction work, many teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) need to be trained, qualified and have access to PPE to protect their health and safety at work. Teachers and paraprofessionals, especially in science, art and vocational programs, may need PPE in the course of their work. In addition, custodial, maintenance and skilled trade workers; food service, security and transportation workers; and nurses may all need PPE depending on the hazards of the tasks they perform. As employers, school districts are required to provide PPE and PPE training for these staff where appropriate.
PPE refers to clothing or equipment that is worn by a worker specifically to reduce his or her exposure to workplace hazards. A hazard is any condition that can cause harm. PPE, when used properly, can reduce exposure to chemical, biological, mechanical, physical, electrical and other workplace hazards. PPE may include items such as respirators, gloves, shoes, lab aprons, other protective clothing, hearing-protective devices, safety glasses, goggles, face shields and hard hats.
The best way to remedy hazards is to address them at their source through elimination or substitution. For example:
• Toxic or hazardous chemicals often remain in science labs and storerooms even when they are no longer part of the curriculum. Proper removal and disposal can eliminate these hazards from the school environment.
• Schools can often substitute less toxic citrus-based degreasers for more hazardous petroleum-based degreasers, reducing health risks for custodial and maintenance staff.
The next best way to reduce hazards is to use engineering controls to interrupt the pathway between the hazard source and the worker. For example:
• Chemical or mechanical process byproducts can be captured and exhausted to the outside by fume hoods (local-exhaust ventilation) before they become airborne and available for inhalation.
• Contaminant concentrations can be reduced through dilution ventilation (the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, system), rendering them less harmful.
PPE is the least effective means of protecting workers because:
• Respirators can adversely impact pulmonary and cardiac function.
• PPE can be cumbersome and uncomfortable, is subject to human error, and has a high rate of failure. This is particularly significant because exclusive reliance on PPE leaves the hazard in place and the worker potentially exposed in the event of PPE failure.
PPE is the protection of last resort. The goal of occupational safety and health is always to prevent, eliminate, or reduce hazards, where possible, rather than to rely on protective gear.
Nevertheless, there are many situations where source control and pathway interruption may not be technically feasible or adequately effective. In these cases, PPE can provide essential protection if the PPE is properly selected, fitted, maintained and used.
When efforts at hazard control are not feasible or are not sufficiently protective, Occupational Safety and Health Administration/Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA/PEOSH) regulations require employers to assess the workplace at least annually to determine if hazards are present, or may be present, that necessitate the use of PPE. The hazard assessment must be certified in writing. Employers must then select and provide appropriate PPE, at no cost, to affected employees and ensure proper use.
Employers must train each worker who will use PPE to know which PPE is necessary, when it is necessary, how to properly wear and use PPE, and PPE limitations, proper care, maintenance, useful life and disposal.
Local associations should work with their UniServ field representatives to ensure teachers and ESPs have been provided with appropriate PPE and training. Be sure to also assess whether better protective measures can be implemented to make the workplace safer and thus reduce or eliminate the need for PPE. Your local health and safety committee or health and safety representative can play a key role in these tasks.
David Newman has a master’s degree in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences from the City University of New York and a master’s degree in Labor Studies from Rutgers University. He is an industrial hygiene consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.
PEOSH PPE web page
OSHA PPE web page